Sunday, 17 June 2018

Post 76: Sissinghurst, a room of one's own and a whiff of scandal...

The golden couple!
When my Mum suggested Sissinghurst as a place we might take her and Dad for their Golden Wedding Anniversary mini-break, I readily agreed.  I was intrigued to see the famous white garden and the home of Harold Nicolson.  Whilst most people have heard more about his wife, Vita Sackville-West, I had made an obscure connection with Harold through my A-Level History project way back in 1987. Researching the 1938 Munich conference led me to his diaries, where, as an English diplomat he had recorded his own accounts of the conference and its possible consequences.  As I said, this was over 30 years ago, so it must have made an impression on me!

Clearly when Harold was not busy being a diplomat, he was designing gardens!  He was responsible for much of the planning of the Sissinghurst grounds.  His wife Vita also had a two-pronged life: she gardened by day and was an author by night.  Prolific in her literary output, her books have not formed part of the popular canon of modern literature, and I was interested in reading a novel written by the woman I had first heard of as a gardener. And so in full knowledge of my planned visit to the Kent "castle," I began to read All Passion Spent, a Sackville-West novel I had picked up a couple of years ago in the famous secondhand bookshop at Alnwick.

The premise for this book appealed to the introverted part of my character: the part which needs a few hours solely and completely to myself in order to function at my best in other, more sociable areas of life! The novel opens with the death of Henry, the first Earl of Slane and thus we are introduced to his wife, who at the age of 88 finds herself single for the first time in 70 years. After decades as the obedient wife of a diplomat, (an autobiographical nod here, I presume, though obedience doesn't seem high on the Sackville-West agenda), Lady Slane refutes the plans that her children have for her to enjoy a meek widowhood living with each of them in turn.  Instead, she travels independently by tube to a house she had fancied in her youth in Hampstead and she secures it for rent for a year. Appalled by this decision, the children nonetheless rally round and suggest a rota of visitors to ensure the well-being of their aged mother.  And this is where introversion is at its best!  She refuses their offers and moreover, bans visits from her Great Grandchildren and her Grandchildren, stating that those under 70 years of age are too demanding and too tiring.  She permits her offspring and their spouses, realising as she does so, that they won't keep up with the tedious need to travel out to see her.  Effectively, she chooses seclusion in her dotage, an antidote to the polite society of diplomatic dinners, trips abroad and official visits.

I loved her for this!  En masse, her children are presented as less than likeable, though Edith and Kay become more rounded as the story progresses.  Lady Slane's key need however, is space.  Even had her family been delightful, it is apparent that the protagonist yearned for what Virginia Woolf had already coined as A Room of One's Own.

And this spawns another interesting feature in Vita Sackville-West's life.  In the middle of the lawns,
Vita's tower room
forming a spur of a walled garden is the famous Sissinghurst Tower.  Used as a prison in its time, Vita refurbished it and created her very own space, a book-lined roundhouse with rugs, a settee, a fireplace and a writing desk. On her death her son confessed that he had only been in the room about six times in his whole life.  She guarded the space jealously; her children had to wait at the foot of the stairs for her to come down to them. It was her space to think, to read and to write, a concept that I wholly comprehend.  In the house of our dreams, hubby has a snooker room and I have my own library complete with a deep Sherlock chair, a fireplace, a desk and a cat!  Vita just got there first!  In keeping with her own fierce protection of her privacy, the National Trust have opened the doorway into the room but full access to the public is barred by a fancy grill.  Hence you can see in but you cannot invade her space.

Another joyous fact in my visit to the gardens was the discovery of Sackville-West's friendship with Virginia Woolf.  This latter author was the subject of an extended essay I wrote during my second year at university.  Having read and thoroughly enjoyed All Passion Spent, I must say that Virginia Woolf is the superior writer, but I am surprised that Vita Sackville-West is not a more common name in literary parlance.

The famous Sissinghurst
white garden
Scandalously ahead of their time, Vita and Harold had an open marriage where both she and her husband had other partners.  One of her affairs, with Violet Trefusis, was so intense that it threatened even the Sissinghurst status quo; famously Nicolson travelled to Paris to bring her home to her children.  No such scandals are depicted in the novel however; instead we are introduced to the delightful character of the lady's maid, who only a few years younger than Lady Slane, remains devoted to "Milady." Her dialogue is a mix of native French and English, creating a Franglais which must have been huge fun to write. Other endearing characters are the two elderly men who become regular visitors to Hampstead, Mr Bucktrout the landlord and old FitzGeorge, an associate of Kay's who builds a friendship with Lady Slane which is kept secret from her son.

Scotney Castle
All Passion Spent is a quiet read which I really enjoyed.  The same cannot be said of the next book that I chose to read on that holiday, having been seduced into its purchase at the second-hand bookshop at Scotney Castle. Bought with full knowledge that this would be a light read, I came late to the Jane Austen project commissioned in her centenary year.  The project involved the rewriting and modernisation of her novels, to celebrate the author and perhaps encourage a new generation of readers to appreciate the gentle manners of English life she depicts.  I have some Joanna Trollope titles on my shelves.  She can tell a good story, and though not as highbrow as her family history would suggest, she is an author I choose when I fancy a lighter touch.  But this one didn't work for me.  The attempt to modernise Sense and Sensibility fell far short of the original.  The story was unconvincing in contemporary Britain and I felt that the frequent need to reference email and texts was there solely as a device to force the narrative into the twenty-first century. The characters, so vibrant in Austen, were irritating and unconvincing in this version.  My advice: stick to the delights of the original and if you want to give Trollope a go, choose a title of her own making rather than this adaptation which is so much poorer than the real thing.

Coming home from Kent, we caught up with series 2 of The Handmaid's Tale. This, and a broadcasting of Atwood's life on the BBC's Imagine whetted my appetite for my next read which is The Heart Goes Last. It promises to be a darkly comic read...

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Post 75: Where my Heart Used to Beat

My final half term holiday is over. I can't believe that this will be my last term at school.  I loved going in this morning and picking up the school routine. My teaching has an edge of desperation to it as I try to teach as much as I can to as many people as possible in the shortest possible time.  This makes for some interesting revision sessions! At this point, I can't imagine not going back to it, but I will see where next year's mid-life crisis leads me...

So the title of my latest read has some poignancy: Where my Heart Used to Beat is a reflective novel written from the viewpoint of its protagonist looking back on "more than sixty years of living." Whilst I am some way off that number, I am certainly at a stage where life is changing.  Child 1 is getting married in August and Child 2 has one more year at uni; so hands-on motherhood is pretty much a chunk of my life that I am beginning to look back on, to see where my heart used to beat in accordance with their needs.  And teaching is soon to be an experience to reflect on rather than do.  I will instead, have the pleasure of being taught. Education runs through my veins and certainly forms a significant part of who I am so far.

Enough about me.  The great Sebastian Faulks was not concerning himself with my sense of identity, but that of his central character, Robert Hendricks. The novel opens in a hotel room in America and an encounter with a hooker. This is rapidly followed by a party with much younger people in the flat above his own in London.  On first appearance, Hendricks is unsettled and unsatisfied. Still in chapter one, he receives a letter from Alexander Pereira "apparently offering [him] a job."  This is the catalyst for reflection.  The letter-writer, heretofore unknown by Hendricks, states that he served with Hendricks' father in the first world war. He also explains that he has spent much of his working life as a neurologist, forming another connection with the central character who is a doctor and psychiatrist. Thus the two key threads of the story are set up:warfare and mental health.

I really enjoyed the connection between past and present in this book.  It is an amazing feat as the combined memories of Pereira and Hendrick form the sweep of the twentieth century.  It encourages the reader to reflect on worldwide events and politics but see them personally, react morally and seek introspection.  The heart of the novel is a wartime romance that flourished in Italy in World War Two between Luisa and Hendricks. Hendrick recalls this relationship with tenderness, and it is clear that this love is the pivot for much of his adult decision-making.

Through the Birdsong trilogy, Faulks has revealed himself to be master of the war story and so Hendricks' retelling of his own war is unsurprisingly convincing and empathetic. But it becomes clear that one of the most interesting things about his story are the gaps, what he chooses to leave out. Even when coerced by Pereira,there are things he does not reveal.

Hendricks' privacy is interesting. His life's work has been to try to reach and understand psychiatric patients, to reach into their gaps and help them to find some meaning or relief. He resists such counselling himself however, and holds information back even as he opens up his memories to Pereira.  I found the psychological aspect of the story compelling, and would really like to see Faulks extend and explore this strand in future novels.

Juxtaposed against Hendricks' laudable aim to reach the unreachable is the fact that he states so clearly that, "All the connections I've made with people over more than sixty years of living cannot conceal the fact that I am utterly alone." This hooked me from the outset.  To feel so isolated after a life many would regard as successful and full of humanity seems bleak and cruel.  Faulks creates in Hendricks a sympathetic protagonist who helps us to examine what it means to be human, and perhaps leads us to question what we need to make us feel that we are leading lives worth living.

Finally, there is a twist in this book that  is not revealed until the closing chapters. It was something that I had not anticipated and, as I said at the end of my last blog, has made this novel a definite on my re-read list.

I met Sebastian Faulks at a
reading at Henley Literary
Festival in 2016
This is a clever novel that gives a macro view of the twentieth century through the micro view of an individual and his associates. It covers politics and trauma, madness and love, loss and grief, but through it all, it has heart.  It is never sentimental but it accesses humanity and sentiment. Essentially, it captures a life with all its flaws, and in doing so, encourages readers to reflect on their own experiences, and maybe even challenges us to probe those areas we leave well alone or have yet to fully acknowledge.

Sebastian Faulks is a modern author who stands out amongst those who have achieved contemporary success.  This novel is original and will not disappoint.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Post 74: When One Door Closes, Another Opens Elsewhere

The weather has been fantastic!  I hope all those of you who live in Britain have been managing to grab a few hours of outdoor reading in this "season between seasons." (I borrowed that very apt quote from the poet, Eavan Boland as she describes a visit to Ireland in May) And those of you in the rest of the world, firstly can I say I am amazed that so many of you have stumbled upon this blog and a heartfelt thank you for reading me so regularly. And if we're alluding to statistics, I am excited to say that my 20,000 hits is possible with this post, so a thank you in advance to all of you who make it worthwhile for me to sit and pen my musings on books.

The last couple of weeks has seen me complete Sebastian Faulks, Where My Heart Used To Beat and Mohsin Hamid's Exit West. It has also seen me say "Goodbye" to my last set of year 13 at my school as I exit north to take up an MA in Warwick next term. This is a weird time for me.  I have been at my current school for 16 years (about time you did something else then, I hear you say!) and so this year's leavers' afternoon tea in my classroom was poignant.  Teaching is a privilege.  It has allowed me to access young minds and open them to explore their world through books and writing.  It has given me the joy of being trusted by young people and immense satisfaction as I see students discover what they can do. There is no doubt, that this particular door closing is not without sadness or trepidation, but it is the right time for me to move on and try something new.  I am very excited about this and my current students, both those who are leaving and those I am handing over to new teachers, have been wonderfully supportive of my mid-life crisis that has lead me back to university!

Mohsin Hamid's, Exit West is, as you might expect, another example of his highly intelligent writing. His novels are short and perfectly formed. Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker, this book explores immigration and globalisation. As the title suggests, the thrust of the story involves two characters who flee their native land and culture to seek a safer life in the West. Their country is never named, but the description in the opening lines of "a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war," sets the context for their city to become a place where mortars are dropped and street skirmishes, patrols and curfews become the norm. Though unnamed, the calls to pray denote a Muslim community and the "crumbling facade that dated back to the colonial era" shows a history of invasion and cultural influence from the West.

But the story is not a simple one of a war-torn former colony.  Hamid has created a panorama of people on the move from all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons.  He has snapshots into the lives of people all over the world, and so in the opening chapter, he switches from the central story to a diversion in Australia where a woman sleeps whilst a man seems to emerge from her wardrobe and then drop out into the night.

And here is where Hamid has employed a surreal concept.  Instead of a lengthy narrative of treacherous crossings, border patrols, people smuggled in the backs of lorries and the undersides of trains, he establishes a metaphor of doors opening all over the world.  Doors that lead somewhere to the West but their destination is never known.  Using the well-known Narnia imagery they symbolise migration, not from a wardrobe to a land of snow, but from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa to the West.  Their very existence tells of the desperation of those who flee from wars and politics that are not of their own making.  The people who find the doors, who pay for access to them, never know what they will find on the other side. This simple metaphor conveys complexity of human experience and emotion; it shows how so many people are forced to step away from everything known to embark on something totally unknown.

And so it is with the protagonists Nadia and Saeed. Already estranged from her parents by her modern decision to live independently, alone and without practising any faith, Nadia meets Saeed in an evening class on corporate branding.  He lives with his parents and conforms to expectations of filial obedience and religious observance. Conflict changes everything however, and when electricity is rationed, mobile signals turned off and the internet shut down, modern life is impossible.  Windows are boarded and taped in case of mortar attack and people live in their boxes without contact with the outside world.  This isolation is much of what led Nadia first to live with Saeed and his father and then to flee, to seek out and find a door. 

The rest of the novel details Nadia's and Saeed's experiences of London and then America, but cleverly snapshots the lives of other immigrants pushing open other doors throughout the world. It is a story of humanity, of prejudice but also of hope. It has elements of realism, surrealism and dystopia. It shows welcome and fear. It shows bridges being built and isolationism being enforced.

Hamid writes in a way that demands an intelligent and thoughtful response.  You are never going to close the final pages and think "that was a nice book!" It is much more than a story; he uses the power of  a story to provoke thought about contemporary issues. My overwhelming response to Exit West is one of hope for humanity globally, that we can reach beyond the current politics and overcome them with fellow feeling.  Such feeling might stem from compassion but needs to become rooted in equality. 

If you hadn't already gathered,this definitely makes my recommended reading list for 2018.  As does Where My Heart Used to Beat. In order to keep this post to a reasonable length, I'll give you a taster for Sebastian Faulks' novel which I'll review more fully very soon.  This is a reflective novel that looks back over a life of loving, of war and of loss.  It explores our very humanity and has a twist at the end that made me want to pick it up and start it all over again.  Indeed, I am very tempted to do that before my next entry...

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Post 73: 3 Books and 5 Farm Machines

Well, would you believe it? A bank holiday weekend when the sun shone every day! That posed a dilemma for me: sunshine equals blissful relaxing reading in the garden, but it also gives rise to lots of other summery possibilities...and this time round, I spurned my books!

Bit of buttercream practice
Day 1 of the long weekend saw me and hubby mooching around the lovely town of Marlow and scouting for designer bargains in the charity shops.  We had lunch in the garden and then got all DIY and mixed concrete to repair our back step.  On Sunday we dined al fresco with a Thai meal at church and then met up with Child 1 plus fiance to discuss weddingy things.  It was on Monday where things became a bit more alternative.

Long-suffering my wistful desires to have married a farmer called Robert and ride tractors, hubby bought me A Day In The Country tractor driving experience.  He realised that he could do nothing about desires 1 or 2, but 3 was solvable! So it was that we found ourselves in Aynho on the Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire border, where I could put my farm skills to the test.

A spot of cultivating!
We arrived to find I was one of three would-be farmers; perhaps predictably, I was the only girl! Sticking to polite convention, the gents decided I should go first on a vintage tractor with trailer around a slalom course. No pressure there then.  Pride and adrenalin surged as I was determined not to fulfil the stereotype of a female driver and, I'm pleased to say, I was pretty sharp!  That wasn't the case on the bigger, butch JCB and giant tractor...the boys were better than me at the computer-style boom operations and they were soooo much better than me at reverse parking with a 14ft trailer, (those who have laughed whilst I try to reverse park my Polo will not be surprised that that bit was my most challenging moment!) But all in all, I wasn't bad.  So, if anyone has a farm and a need for a very nifty vintage tractor driver who can cultivate in a straight line, then message me!

And all this excitement has taken me away from the printed page, but I have read three books since the last post.  The first was the appropriately agriculturally-titled, How To Measure A Cow by Margaret Forster.  And I'm pleased to say that the book did deliver on its aim.  I now know that to measure a bovine I need to go from the shoulder to the second joint of the tail, multiply that length by 5 and divide by 21 to get the weight! I'm sure this is a very useful skill to someone!

The storyline was, I have to admit, disappointing.  The main premise is that Tara, now "Sarah Scott" is living with her new identity in a town in the north of England in order to start afresh following a long spell in prison. Despite auguring well, the characterisation and plot never fully deliver.  Sarah is an invention which Tara Fraser finds hard to maintain. Through encounters with an elderly neighbour and three former friends, all of whom are stereotypes and fail to become fully rounded characters, Tara's former life is revealed.  By the ending (no spoilers, though I wouldn't give this book your time), I was nonplussed and totally unconvinced by her past history or present situation. One that despite its engaging title, will be bypassing my shelves and going straight to the charity shop.

My second read was also less than inspiring, but its author has so many accolades I think I must be missing something.  It is a novella by Philip Roth called Goodbye Columbus. Motivated by the A-Level reading list for this module, I am attempting to lead by example and encourage my students to read beyond the set texts. I think however, that they can miss this one out!  It is a coming of age novel, centred on a summer of sexual awakening in America in the 1950's or thereabout.  Young lovers meet around an outdoor pool and end up making a clandestine visit to a doctor to get the Dutch Cap. Their couplings are eager and furtive but have a temporary air about them. Indeed it is all rather symbolic...even their names don't seem to matter, other than that they denote them as Jewish Americans.  Neither Neil nor Brenda ever become fully developed characters. It was always more about the experience than the romance, and the young couple cannot survive once they are found out. And perhaps it is this that means I don't like the book.  Maybe I am more of a romantic than I give myself credit for. 

So by this time I'm getting desperate for a book where the characters have some heart.  I turned to Emma Donoghue's, The Wonder.  I liked The Room and I admit, I was totally attracted to the very beautiful cover (though the lettering on the spine did rub off on my thumb!).  This is set in Ireland in the late nineteenth century, with Lib Wright, the protagonist, being a nurse who had served and trained with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. This assignment is very different however, and allows the author to probe the religious beliefs and superstitions that cloak Catholic Ireland at the time.  She is employed to watch Anna, an eleven-year-old girl who, so her parents, doctor and priest purport, has not eaten for the four months since her birthday.  Lib recognised the physiological impossibility of this and sets out to disprove the stories of manna and miracles.

She discovers however, that Irish beliefs run deep in this central part of the country, long scarred by English colonialism and the famine roads that leaded to nowhere other than humiliation and death. Breaking the fast and saving Anna's life become a mission that Lib had not expected.  As the story unfolds the book becomes more than a competition between rationality and superstition, between science and faith, as the child's past holds more conflicts and contradictions than Anna can cope with.

The plot line works well.  It is a gentle story where the setting and premise do not change.  It is ostensibly a story about a nurse who tries to persuade a child to eat.  Much of the novel takes place in the dark mud walls of Anna's bedroom.  And yet it is compelling. It centres around understanding people and making sense of their actions. And so I finally got to read a book this month where character is at its heart.  It is an easy, well-constructed read. Some of the minor characters are less convincing, (William Byrne is a bit disappointing, but he serves well as a plot device), but it is a book I would recommend.  It will be added to my bookshelves!

My next read is Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks. I am a bit of a Faulks fan, so my expectations are high. I am also very fond of the book already as it is a signed copy that has survived a night in the airing cupboard following a bedside table spilt water incident!

As always,thanks for reading. Please feel free to share and comment!

Friday, 13 April 2018

Post 72: Truth, Art and Fiction: The Goldfinch Reviewed

Second post in a month must mean it is school holidays! I have had a beautifully laid-back fortnight,
edging the grass (not in anyone's estimation is it a lawn!), weeding and digging the borders and nearly crippling both Child 2 and my car by making them carry nigh-on a tonne of compost and bark in one sitting! Getting adventurous in the garden, hubby and I have started a patio at the needs to be finished soon because I have bought a little greenhouse-shelf-construction for my seeds.  Monty Don would be aghast to realise that I haven't got round to sowing any yet... salad and chillies might be a bit late in the Martin kitchen this year.

With the wedding of the year later in August, I also made my first attempts at an outfit.  I had great fun with two friends: one trying on hats (all a bit ludicrous to be honest!) and one buying a full regalia.  And then the inevitable return of said full regalia as I reconsidered... just proving that I am, at heart, such as girl!  Traumatised by the whole mother-of-the-bride pressure, I am resolved to give up for a few weeks before re-immersing myself in the High Street!

Now other forms of real enjoyment have been the decadence of  being brought a cuppa in bed in the morning and a subsequent hour's reading.  That is the way to start every day! And further enjoying the freedom of not too many scheduled events, I have done some writing. That at least gave me some relief that I can put a sentence or two together for the gap-year-mid-life-crisis MA I'm doing in the autumn.  The course is a year, but the book I have just finished reading took the author eleven years to write...that is real dedication to a story-line!

In writing this review I am fully aware that I come very late to the The Goldfinch party.  I have had it downloaded as an audio-book for months and had a couple of abortive listens to the opening chapter.  Abortive, not because I didn't like it, but because I did and I needed to commit to listen regularly, rather than haphazardly between Radio 4 comedies and a premature penchant for The Archers Omnibus!

So Easter baking gave rise to my third attempt at listening.  It is a deceptively simple opening.  Young Theo Decker is with his Mum on the way to a meeting with the school Principal. He doesn't quite know what is going to be discussed; his guilt spans several misdemeanours and the reader is immediately empathetic with his agony over which of his infringements have been discovered. The more arresting and compelling hook however, occurs in the Frick Art Gallery in New York.  Theo's Mother decides to kill time before the appointment doing something she loves: exploring art galleries.  A particular painting, The Goldfinch by  Fabritius was being exhibited and she particularly wanted to see it. It is evident from the title that the painting will have far-reaching significance and this begins when a bomb is detonated in the gallery. Trapped and separated from his Mother, he forms a crucial bond with a dying man that leads to Theo taking the painting from the debris.  This act reverberates through the rest of his story and can be seen to be a fundamental link to his Mother and a central pivot around which his development turns.

This book is long: after listening to the opening chapters, I bought the novel on my Kindle and switched to reading.  I like audio, but even when I listen to certain sections whilst cooking, if it is a book I am invested in then I re-read the pieces I have already heard.  This won't be the same for everyone, but I am essentially a kinaesthetic learner and auditory processing is my weakest area of retention.

So, with my Kindle noting 868 pages, I was grateful that the hours were per chapter rather than per the novel as a whole!  And because this is so long, it needs to be read with momentum.  I don't advocate racing through a book, but a steady reading rhythm will make even the thinnest of plots have more resonance.  A story needs to be told, and weekly episodes do very few novels the justice they deserve.

And so back to Theo Decker.  This is a bildungsroman told in the first person and spans his life from thirteen to his mid-twenties.  The voice is thus youthful and at times, naive. There is an essential goodness about Theo and I found myself hoping that the denouement would move him from a Pawn to at least a Knight in his own game. Motherless in a family where the Father had long gone and any Grandparents had surrendered interest years ago, he begins as a victim.  Cornered by well-meaning social services, Theo blurts out the name of a family whose son had been a friend in Elementary School, and so he begins his life post-Frick-explosion with the Barbours.

It is a story that is difficult to predict, and it sweeps the reader with a wide narrative arc that moves from New York to Las Vegas back to New York and then to Amsterdam.  In every episode of Theo's life he makes friends or has a significant character who is important to him, but he remains essentially alone.  At one point in the story he takes a long and lonely bus journey, and this, for me, perhaps more than the at-times contrived metaphor with The Goldfinch, summed up his character.

The book spans Theo's maturation: it is perhaps inevitable that with his background and the influence of those around him, he will find drugs, alcohol and intensity of friendship that eclipses sense. But the central relationship with Boris always has some tenderness at its heart. In his fearlessness Boris retains a primitive affection for Theo which means that readers always tolerate him even when they see his influence over the protagonist is not good.  Their relationship is in some jeopardy in the final stages of the novel, but I won't give any spoilers to the ending just in case there are any of my readers who, like me, have come very late to The Goldfinch party.

There are two delightful characters who resonated fully with me: Welty, whose dialogue takes place over only a very small number of pages, and his business partner and friend, Hobie.  These old men are, like the antiques they restore, from a bygone age of trust, simplicity and mutual respect.  They act as ballast in the storm of Theo's life and they are a simple juxtaposition to the seedy and tortured worlds of drugs, gambling and crime that become Theo's normality in Vegas and beyond.

Alongside this cast of characters there are female figures.  The most important remains Theo's mother who represents love and stability; a safe place.  It is made clear from the outset that her death changed everything for Theo.  Indeed, very early on in the novel he states, "It would have been better if she had lived." But despite her absence being her very presence in the novel, Tartt rightly creates other female characters for Theo. These are not as fully realised as any of the male characters, though Pippa, despite a certain aura of mystery, is the most tangible.

This novel is acclaimed: it won the Pulitzer prize for Fiction in 2014 and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. But it is not without its critics. I really enjoyed the book.  I was convinced by the protagonist and though I resisted some of the changes of scene and significant characters at different points, I found each element of the novel compelling.  Some have said that it is not well-written and is overly dependant on cliche. This I don't agree with.  What I found challenging was the persistent metaphor of life and art.  This is fully expounded in the closing chapter and reads almost as a philosophical essay on the subject. This seems to have been the authorial purpose to the novel as a whole, but Tartt created Theo Decker in order to provide a context for the viewpoint.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch
I prefer to remain character-centrist and see the purpose of the story as one of self-discovery.  Integral to Theo understanding himself is his attachment to the picture.  But I doubt he would have formed such an affinity with The Goldfinch had it not been for its associations with his Mother. There is no doubt however, that Tartt evokes the painting well.  I was certainly curious to see it online and would be very happy to encounter it in a gallery and see it for real.  So here, she truly succeeds.  She awakens our artistic curiosity and perhaps encourages readers to experience art in a way that they have not considered before.

Comparisons have been made between this novel and the style of Charles Dickens.  I can see that Tartt writes at length, but her detail is not in the description nor in evocation of mood.  Instead, I found myself comparing more with the episodic nature of Jane Eyre.  Whilst the bildungsroman connection is obvious, both texts do have similar blocks of story.  Bronte utilises Jane's childhood, Lowood School, Thornfield, the Rivers' house and then back to Rochester.  In The Goldfinch, there is the accident, the Barbours' house, Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam and then its almost worldwide conclusion. Like Jane Eyre, each story is dependent for its context on the one that went before, but it reads almost as a series of cameos.

Ultimately, Donna Tartt conveys that life is fleeting and that we have choices to make.  She makes interesting assertions in defining what might be perceived to be morally good and what might be its opposite.  Voicing these thoughts through Boris, Theo and Hobie at the conclusion of the novel makes the viewpoint persuasive.

I really enjoyed this book.  It needs to be read at a pace so that its gargantuan length doesn't put you off.  I recommend the Kindle for this (or any other electronic reading device of course!) as it disguises the thickness of the spine! Having said this, I might give it a place in my physical library as I quite like the visual of all the books I have enjoyed being ranged in my shelves!

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Post 71: Reservoir 13 and other musings

Family Easter stroll!
You find me in the first week of the holidays where I have deliberately kept my diary relatively free in order to read and breathe following a chaotic term. Easter weekend was lovely, with all the family together. 

I had eagerly ordered all the Costa Prizewinners in January and so far I have read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and dipped into the poems of  Helen Dunmore in her last anthology Inside The Wavewritten in the months leading up to her death. The latter is a contemplative collection, made poignant by the circumstances surrounding the writing.  As poetry is not my forte, the link will take you to the Guardian review.

And to bring you right up to date, I have allowed an hour to pass since completing Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor in the hope that I can be excited about it.  Alas, I cannot. It is original, but not in a way that I found helpful. There are no "natural" paragraphs, making the pages dense and demanding.  Any dialogue is embedded within the sections, with no graphological breaks.  There are no speech marks and no line breaks.  This forces the reader to concentrate to keep the sense of the page.  Whilst this is no bad thing, it is, to me, a bit of a gimmick that detracts from the beauty of the prose.

And the narrative is beautiful: several commentators have likened it to poetry, and it certainly has
both lyricism and rhythm.  I felt however that the rhythm got a little tedious.  Each chapter spans a year and charts the seasons in this Archers-esque village that seems to be situated somewhere generically near the Peak District.  I imagined Bakewell without the tourists combined with the Damflask Reservoir in the Peaks near Sheffield.  The setting, as indicated by the title, is nestled in quarry territory with thirteen reservoirs near the village. 

The chapters open with New Year celebrations and their observation is enthusiastic or muted depending on the circumstances redolent in the village in any given year. The year is then measured by the natural world. There are badgers in their sets, fish in the rivers, foxes and their cubs and goldcrests in the yew trees in the church yard whose appearance usually signalled the ending of a chapter...

The background to the story is a missing teenager, who disappears whilst on holiday in the village. But this novel is less about the human story than the world in which human stories take place.  Throughout the book, it seems to me as though the characters, though carefully constructed and cleverly matured over the period of the novel, are always superimposed onto the landscape they inhabit.  This means the humanity of the book never really gets centre-stage.  Lack of connection with character makes this book difficult for me to enthuse over.

I don't normally give spoilers in my reviews and if you want to read this novel you may wish to look away now...I'll put a few line breaks in so that your eye doesn't travel, but just this once I want to comment on the ending of a story. 

                                                   **********Spoiler Alert!**********

The fact remains that the ending changes nothing,so commenting on it doesn't seem like a spoiler.  There is no resolution to the event which hooks readers in the first instance.  The disappearance of "Rebecca or Becky or Bex" remains just that.  We find a shoe, a reference to her hoody and frequent reminders of her parents, but not at any visceral level.  I appreciate that the novel communicates that no matter what tragedies or disasters occur, life goes on.  The emphasis on the natural world reduces human behaviour almost to an irrelevance. Rain keeps raining, the sun keeps shining, the birds sing, nest and mate, the foxes roam and the badgers nose their way into the undergrowth.  Nature is beyond and above human tragedy.  That I get, and as such, it is beautifully written and conceived.  On another level, the people also turn their backs.  Babies are born, people die, change jobs, get married and divorced, grow up, leave home and come back again.  Spanning the years, we are almost as predictable as the land around us.  But there is a malevolence lurking there: secrets, lies, disappointments, perversions and threats, as mistakes are made and sinful natures revealed.  Again, a story as old as time itself, and one that remains unexplained and unexplored in Reservoir 13.

The Costa judges of the Novel Award said that the book was “Hypnotic, compelling and original..." And whilst it is hypnotic in its evocation of place, I didn't find it compelling as a novel. The cyclical chapters and the minute observations I found a little soporific if I'm honest.  I would have preferred it as a short story or novella...thirteen chapters was too much hypnosis for me! I also accept its originality: in form and in content.  However, I prefer stories to have greater engagement at a character level, and the narrative voice remained too detached for me to invest fully in any of them.  The originality in form I found distracting.

However, Jon McGregor is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham and a Costa prize-winning author.  As I prepare myself to write under scrutiny at Warwick next academic year, I am looking at this book and getting ready to learn, to discover new ways of thinking about and responding to texts.  But for now, this one has beauty and poetry...and to me they are less compelling than empathetic human and political stories. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Post 70: Americanah, Immigration and Warwick

It has been too long between blog posts.  Blame the modern exam system!  I'm working more days in school than I have for a few years and have three exam classes.  Lots of mocks (or PPEs...pre-public examinations as we now call them in order to either a) give them gravitas or b) heap a load more pressure on the students by making the papers sound far more important than they are. Take your pick!) Either way it makes for heaps of marking!

But I have news on the work front.  I have recently been accepted on an MA course at Warwick University from October to study Writing.  This is very daunting and exciting.  It's my mid-life crisis I suppose. I looked around and realised I could stay the same for the next 15 years or I could screw up my eyes, hold my nose and jump in at the deep end! It's the first time in my adult life where I haven't really got a plan. I know I'm excited to have a reading list and I'm excited to study, but beyond that I have no idea whether it will take me anywhere or whether I'll end up returning to the chalk (whiteboard) face!

And the chalk-face isn't all slog.  Every year a new batch of students makes it worthwhile. It is a privilege to help young people to reach their potential and guide them to confident independence. It has been a real joy to get back in the saddle of teaching Literature A-Level.  Having spent years running the amazing Language and Literature Combined A-Level, it has been refreshing to return to a revamped version of the more traditional qualification.

One of the joys is the fact that it embraces modernity in some of its modules.  My reading has certainly been more varied because of it.  The "Immigration Literature" unit has Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist as its lead text and Lahiri's The Namesake as a comparison.  Beyond that however, there is encouragement to read widely; to learn about the politics of immigration and its stories.  So I have read A Very Short Introduction To American Immigration (well the introduction at least) and have its companion text A Very Short Introduction to International Immigration in my bag for reading over the Easter holidays.  If you haven't discovered this delightful series of non-fiction texts, then pop to Oxford University Press to check them out.  If you ever managed to read them all, you'd be a whizz at University Challenge.  I really need to read all the ones I have collected so far (they look very attractive on the bookshelves you see), as my scores in the recent quarter-final episodes have been shameful!

On the fiction front, I have completed John Updike's The Terrorist and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche's Americanah.  I have also re-read The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell, but that one has no link with the A-Level unit!

John Updike
In my last post I indicated that I was enjoying John Updike.  Having completed the novel, I'm not so convinced.  A real boon to teaching this year has been a move away from the nerdy book club formed of English department staff (though we did have reunion last weekend and consumed a lot of cake!) to a new reading group of year 12 students where we discuss wider reading associated with the module.  Together we managed to pan Updike's novel as a text far inferior to that of Mohsin Hamid.  Whilst I freely admit that The Reluctant Fundamentalist  is one of the most intelligent and cleverly conceived books I have ever read, Updike's postmodern take on the immigration question in a world post-9/11 was never much more than stereotype.  Where Hamid challenges such preconceptions, Updike manages to reinforce them. His characters are either stock or unconvincing, and the plot, with the possible exception of the            ending, was predictable.

Americanah was a very different read and though not as gripping as Half of a Yellow Sun, it was a satisfying book.  The immigration theme continues, but this time from a Nigerian perspective.  The central character Ifemelu has grown up in Nigeria and moved to America for university.  Like The Namesake, it conveys the difficulties of assimilation and through fiction, forces readers to confront their own subconscious bias. It is interesting that she states that it was only when she moved to America that she had any concept of race or being black. She discovered a hierarchy where she was not near the top, despite her education and abilities.  She discovered that the American Dream was not all it promises. Once she had graduated, Ifemelu made a living from her writing, and her blog posts make up a significant element of Part 4 of the novel.  Adiche uses them to make political comment that is sociological and contemporary.  It is a voice for a significant minority that, despite the years since the civil rights movement began, have got used to not being heard.

Parallel to the American story is a brief glimpse into life in the UK as an African immigrant.  Obinze, Ifemelu's teenage boyfriend, comes to Britain to seek opportunity.  He arrived as a successful, well-educated young man, but never once received acknowledgement of that.  Any jobs he had were unskilled and there was little possibility of his achieving a long-term visa or British legality.

The story ends back in Nigeria.  Both Obinze and Ifemelu return to their homeland.  Here the story becomes one of readjustment, of re-assimilation to the country of birth after experiencing Western culture.

The literature of immigration is sociology through fiction.  It demands something of its readers.  It asks us to address our own preconceptions and, like Inua Ellams said, asks us to question whether it is ever right to label a human being as illegal.

Fiction and the lives of well-drawn characters have the capacity to change the way people think.

Reading is not a passive activity or a harmless hobby: it is an invitation to explore the lives of other people and a tool to help us make up our own minds about the world in which we live.