Saturday, 10 August 2019

Summer Reading to Whet Your Appetite, with a bit of Climbing and Graduating Thrown In.


Top of Scafell Pike
Lots has happened since I last posted: we've climbed Scafell Pike, Child 2 has graduated, Hubby has changed his role at work and Child 1 has secured a permanent job. Daughter and son-in law have spent a week on New Wine radio whilst Son has begun battle with Teeline shorthand for his next venture into journalism. Meanwhile I have painted my parents' hall, stairs and landing and this week, I submitted the last piece of writing for my MA.  

Studying at Warwick University has been a great privilege— a year of incredible opportunity and learning. I have met many wise and talented people, and been greatly encouraged by my fellow students. My next step is to complete a full-length piece. Writing this intention publicly is a very scary thing!  Taking more time to write feels indulgent, as I had only given myself a year out of "normal" life to concentrate on writing and study, but it also feels that it would be a waste of all that learning if I don't give myself a chance to develop further. I see myself as a person who is writing, rather than a writer.  To be a writer, I need a book with my name on the spine.  That has been my dream ever since I was a little girl.  I will allow that dream to breathe a little over the next twelve months—whilst acknowledging that it may never happen, it certainly won't if I don't try.
At Blackwell's for Dorian Gray
with a post-purchase glow!
One result of the MA has been an exponential growth in the number of books on my bookshelves. The words "it's for my course" may have justified some purchases only tenuously connected with my subject matter!  So I began the summer by taking stock, counting the titles in my “to be read” section. Mmmm....at least eighteen months-worth of reading just waiting to happen right there in my lounge. I vowed not to buy any more books, when I happened to find myself in Blackwell's in Oxford with my sister-in-law for a bookshop theatre event. Those going to the play had free run of the shop for the best part of an hour. Bliss. I don't think I can blame her for the resulting purchase, though in my defence, I only bought from the three for two section…

Passing her audition for
bookshop cat
Other than that, I have stuck to my summertime policy of reading from the "tbr" shelves—and the great thing about the summer is that, as if by some unspoken permission, once the temperature goes above 20 degrees we bibliophiles allow ourselves to read with less guilt than at other times of the year.

One of my favourite things to do whilst away on holiday is to get up before anyone else and curl up, undisturbed with a good book.  I began on the balcony overlooking the ghyll, (I learnt lots of northern dialect words for water and hills whilst in the Lake District), but the morning temperatures in Ambleside are not quite the Riviera, and I settled for an expansive armchair next to an open window.  There, I finished Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss, and read Grace by Paul Lynch from cover to cover.

This was the second novel I have read from Sarah Moss, and I am hooked! I do however, need to issue a no-spoiler apology to loyal readers.  I reviewed Signs for Lost Children in my last blog post but hadn’t realised it was the second book in a sequel.  Having read them out of order myself, I don’t think I lost anything from the experience.  Both books were compelling, compassionate and resonating. The characterisation is wholly convincing, and the time period subtly and accurately evoked. Bodies of Light provided context for the second novel, but both really do stand alone. If I spoilt book one for you by beginning with book two, then I apologise.  

Bodies of Light focuses on Ally, and begins with her childhood under the stern and uncompromising jurisdiction of her mother. Schooled to believe herself highly privileged, she suffers deprivations of food and warmth so that her mother can teach her to have empathy with the poor.  Her artist father is more generous to his children, but he is also self-absorbed, and doesn't appreciate the anxiety felt by Ally as she strives to please her parents.  She and her younger sister May are educated first at home and then in a private house where the teacher encourages women to believe in their own abilities. Her mother aspires for Ally to be one of the first university-educated women in the country, and she wants her to use her talents to become a doctor so that she can help to alleviate the suffering of the inner-city poor.

This is a beautifully-evoked story of two sisters and their responses to their upbringing.  It tells of pioneering education for women, and the specific difficulties associated with being a trailblazer. It explores family life and attitudes, and is utterly convincing in evoking people and place in a specific time.  

It's not just me who is enthusiastic about Sarah Moss—the publishing world is also getting increasingly excited—her latest book has created waves when it became the subject of a 9-way bid, reported on in The Bookseller. Hopefully, such a stir will make her more of a household name for those who love good, well-written fiction. Success that is well-deserved.

Grace, by Paul Lynch, is set in Ireland during the potato famine.  It is a lyrical, poetic text, that conjures up ghosts of the past. Indeed, the line between the living and the dead is blurred throughout the story, as the central character, Grace, continues to hear echoes of voices long-dead and recently-passed, as she strives to find work and stay alive in perilous circumstances.  Turned from her own home, disguised as a boy, her mother exhorts her to leave and find work, telling her, "You are the strong one now." It is an act of love, a protection from violation, but this is not something her mother can say, nor is it something Grace can yet understand.  

Winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the year 2017, selected as a best book of the year 2017 by The Guardian, and shortlisted for the Walter Scott prize for Historical Fiction, the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and France's Prix Litterature Monde 2019, it is evident that Grace has received wide critical acclaim. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but recommend that it is read as a book should be—in sweeping hours rather than punctuated pre-bed chapters.  The haunting beauty of the writing and the winding, changing circumstances that frame the plot, need to be experienced and contemplated.  

July reading also saw me complete Rivers of Ink by Paul M.M. CooperAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Nora Webster by Colm Toibin.

Rivers of Ink is set in Sri Lanka in the thirteenth century. Asanka has risen to wealth and status as poet to the king, but when the regime is overthrown by an invading monarch from the mainland, he is left vulnerable. The new king is keen to utilise Asanka's talents to translate the lengthy poem "Shishupala Vadha into Tamil [for] the people of this land." Magha, the new Maharajah, wants to give his conquered people the great poem in their own tongue to unite them under his reign.  Asanka finds himself compelled to do the new King's bidding, despite the horrors that he witnesses, and the revulsion he feels at Magha's violence.  He begins the novel thinking that poetry "is just my trade... it makes us forget  our lives for a few minutes - but that is all." His courageous lover, Sarasi, feels differently, and is appalled at Asanka's narrow view, "Is that what you've always thought? All the time you have been teaching me?"

The novel works on many levels—opening an ancient culture to a reader, exploring the possibilities and limitations of translation, the beauty and power of the written word, and creating a plot that weaves through traditional literature, oral culture and relationships.  It is a hopeful book, characterising the bravery of ordinary people in the face of oppression, and showing how someone who perceives themselves to be weak and without influence can discover that they are much more than that.

American Marriage won the Women's Prize for Fiction this year, and it is easy to see why. Set in Georgia, the backdrop of racial tension is apparent throughout. The central characters are newlyweds Celestial and Roy, and a miscarriage of justice puts Roy at the mercy of a court that finds it too easy to convict him of a crime he did not commit. Finding herself on her own when she had expected to be part of a couple puts strain on Celestial as her uncle battles with appeals on Roy's behalf. 

The plot is compelling, but it is the characters who make the story.  Written from various first person points of view through narrative voice and a series of letters, readers gain empathy with both key characters and the third wheel in their relationship, Andre.  A close friend of Roy's from college, he is also a longtime ally of Celestial, having grown up as her boy-next-door. Faced with twelve years alone, Celestial turns to Andre for the friendship she has always had from him.  

The opening section of the novel is written in the forms of letters between prison and the outside world.  They trace the hopes, fears and suspicion that incarceration breeds, and Tayari Jones is very skilful in communicating the state of relationships through these necessarily one-sided missives. Without giving any spoilers (the blurb on the novel reveals this bit), the second half of the novel is narrative in form; Roy has been freed and thus is able to communicate more fully than the more restrictive letter form allowed. He is ready to pick up his marriage.  His life has been on hold, but Celestial's has not. They are starting again from very different points.

This forms the heartbeat of the novel—how to rebuild lives when they have been broken. It is full of warmth, compassion and gritty realism.  The author has created characters that you will care about, against contemporary issues of racism and justice in modern America. This is a truly excellent read. 

My final read of last month was Nora Webster. This is another example of fine character work. The book is essentially an exploration of how Nora, recently widowed, copes with her new identity.

We all have labels.  Immediately we are born we are someone's son or daughter, we are grandchildren and nieces or nephews. As we grow we are students, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands and wives. These labels define us in very real ways. When Nora Webster has to swap wife for widow then her life changes.  She has to work, she has to parent on her own and she has to learn to understand her place in a community where she is no longer part of a couple, no longer Maurice's wife.

This is not a morbid book, nor is it depressing.  It is more about the the resilience of Nora, and her resounding ordinariness.  She is not heroine material, she is not an archetypal eponymous hero, and yet readers will be rooting for her as if she were. Like American Marriage, this book has characterisation with soul. Colm Toibin invites you into Nora's home, into her life, and you take residence, walking alongside her, urging her on. He is also unafraid to insert the political—a book set in Ireland in the early seventies cannot avoid the Troubles.  References to Charles Haughey and gun-running to the paramilitary organisations in the north forms cultural background to Nora's life. Increased unionisation is also apparent, alongside quiz nights and close-knit families, and communities which make reinvention of oneself impossible to achieve without scrutiny.

I am certainly going to be buying more Colm Toibin and Tayari Jones... but I will endeavour to resist waving my credit card until I have dented my tbr shelves a little more. 

Thank you for hanging in there, and reading to the end of this long post.  Hopefully, I've whetted your appetites for your late summer reading—there's still time!




Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Post 86: Madness, Marriage and a Glimpse into Publication

After somewhat of a dearth of posts this year, I am now giving you two in a matter of weeks, but sometimes I feel compelled to respond to a book immediately after completing it.

I said that I was enjoying the opening chapters of Signs for Lost Children; I finished reading yesterday and really want to share it with you.  This is the first novel I have read by Sarah Moss, and I'm certainly going to be seeking out her other titles.  She writes in a very gentle voice, reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro, and deserving of comparable critical acclaim; she seduces the reader into the story and creates characters with depth and compassion.


The story is set in the late nineteenth century and explores madness, marriage and culture. The central characters are Tom Cavendish, who has the rather niche job of lighthouse engineer, and his new wife Ally. It is her story that fascinated me the most. A qualified medical doctor, Alethea Cavendish does not fit the mould of late Victorian society.  Her education and intelligence are met with much scepticism, many refusing to use her title of Dr with anything beyond sarcasm. It is telling that much of the opposition comes from other women who seem incapable of comprehending Ally's desire to practise medicine. Though equality still has some way to go in 2019, we have travelled significant distance since corsets, teas and calling cards.

Central to the book is madness.  Since being enthralled by Bertha held captive in Thornfield's attic in Jane Eyre, I have had fascination for the dual subjects of women and madness. As an undergrad, (yes, a long time ago), I read Elaine Showalter's The Female Malady  and the collection of essays compiled by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in Madwoman in the Attic, and the fascination for mental disorder and its portrayal in literature was firmly rooted.

Ally's section of the book is set in Cornwall, Manchester and London.  Each setting is significant to her development and the development of theme. She is brought to Cornwall as a young bride, clearly in love and longing to find meaning and comfort in marriage. Their marriage has a very challenging beginning however, as Tom is about to embark on months of travel to Japan where he has been commissioned to advise on and build lighthouses. They are together for only a few weeks before he leaves.

It is arranged that Ally will work voluntarily at the Asylum. This was the most evocative and compelling part of the story for me. Moss writes with insight and compassion about the patients and the staff, conveying Victorian attitudes whilst allowing her character to be a voice that is suggestive of change and progression. Ally despairs at what she sees, but she sees beyond the forced feeding, the straitjackets and the isolation to the women whom she treats.  She asks questions about sanity and, in particular, the expectations and restrictions on women's life. She points out that a woman is more likely to be criticised for her action than for inaction, for speech rather than silence, acknowledging that in most situations for a woman to be considered sane, she should conduct herself in the way best calculated to drive any reasonable adult to distraction.  Brilliant.

Ally's character is complicated by a dead sister and overbearing mother, and appeased but not solved by a loving and indulgent London Aunt who tries to bathe her in luxury in order to protect her clever niece. The role of each of these women is worthy of an essay, but I'm hoping to provide you with a genuine curiosity so that you are encouraged to read this book for yourselves.

Central to Ally's life is the absence of her husband, who has left her to begin a new life and a new role unsupported. This strand - of a woman making her way independently - portrays the real isolation of female trailblazers in previous centuries.

Tom Cavendish is not cruel or thoughtless. Like Ally, he is intelligent, moral and has integrity. His sections are predominantly set in various places in Japan, and Moss evokes Japanese culture in the 1880s with a lightness of voice and depth of authenticity.  Tom is appalled by the covetousness of European collectors, and more appalled that he has agreed to act as buyer for one, for a fee that will be life-changing for him and Ally. He is appalled by the attitude of the British ex-pats whilst acknowledging that his own conscience is never fully clear. He seeks to understand the country which is his host, and sometimes he succeeds. He explores myths and culture and craftsmanship, and falls under the spell of Eastern life. Moss writes with warmth and respect as Tom explores the magic of fox mythology in the midst of a foreign rurality, where he concludes that even the light in one place is distinctive...the sun shines differently and the very air seems to have another composition. 

Adjustment and readjustment, compromise and integrity form the backbone to this story. Sarah Moss writes about the late Victorian era, but speaks into what it means to be human. There is quiet humanity throughout this book that resonates beyond historical boundaries.

Halfway through the year, this is definitely my top read of 2019 so far. At this point I'll reveal that the author is a leading light in the Warwick Writing Programme, but as she has never been my tutor, I can write without bias or sycophancy.

And I owe a thank you to the students on the Warwick MA who formed the committee to bring our anthology to print. We had a fabulous launch in Waterstones, Piccadilly where I was terrified and excited to read a section of one of my short stories. This was followed by a visit to the Salon Des Refuses art exhibition in Camden the following day to see my sister-in-law's exhibited artwork. A talented artist, Bernie Grist has been a continual support to me in my writing, and we share the excitement and struggles of trying to work authentically and enthusiastically in markets where it is difficult to get exposure. The launch of Chimera gave me a glimpse of publication, but the MA as a whole has given me tenacity and opened new ways to approach my work. I have discovered how I write, how to improve my writing and how to find satisfaction in the process of writing. It has, so far, been a year of my life for which I am profoundly grateful.

Writing, and reading the writing of others is enriching and affirming.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Post 85 From Silver Service to Sausage Baguette

We've been living the high life so far this month. It began with a local visit to The Waterside Inn, Bray.  Very fancy.  Kind friends had clubbed together to buy us a voucher for this exclusive restaurant. Very different from anywhere we've before, someone was even employed to meet us at the door and park our car for us! I'm still giggling about that now, (and immensely relieved that we had, by pure chance, cleaned my car).
Despite feeling a little nervous about lunch in such an upmarket place, we had a fabulous time.  The food was incredible, the staff friendly, and we enjoyed being treated like VIPs for a couple of hours. Excellent.

We followed such gourmet delights with a trip down memory lane to Cromer, North Norfolk, where we swapped haute cuisine for Starvin' Marvin's sausage baguettes on the sea front. Equally enjoyable!

Hubby's parents once owned a guest house in the seaside town, and he fondly remembers serving hearty breakfasts to visitors during his uni holidays. I also remember it vividly, not least because it was where my father-in-law-to-be learnt of my rather alarming sleepwalking habits—causing him to prowl around the upper floors in the middle of the night armed with a poker, looking for a commotion that seemed to have emanated somewhere in the region of room 6!
And room 6, as it turns out, is now the family bathroom, complete with a Victorian bath by the window providing a view over the sea. It was lovely to be welcomed by the current owners and given a tour of the much- improved kitchen and living quarters, as well as enjoying a stay in room 4 where, in former times, Martin family new year gatherings all took place. If you fancy a Norfolk break I recommend Albury House.

It's not all been unadulterated fun.  An intensive week of humanitarian law gave me great sympathy for Child 2 and all the facts he's currently storing in his brain for his law finals. It also made me despair somewhat for the human race and how incalculably cruel we can be to one another. It resulted in a journalist-style article on international justice after conflict and atrocity. Very interesting and stimulating, but hard-graft.

This course also meant that I read a lot of books on retribution and restorative justice which you'll be relieved I have no intention of reviewing in my blog!  I am however going to include The Politics of Exile. The title might make you want to run a mile, but I'm going to rank this as one of my best reads of the year, so stay with me!
Autobiographical, it reads like a novel, and is very short.  The Canadian author, Elizabeth Dauphinee, tells of her epiphany as she worked to publish a scholarly book on the conflict in former Yugoslavia.  It was during the final stages of completion that she employed the services of a Serb speaker to check her foreign language quotations. From the first page she engages us with the relationship between them, "I built my career on life of a man called Stojan Sokolovic. And I would like to explain myself to him. I would like to ask him to forgive me...but I don't know how to begin."
He threw all her research and ideas into free-fall, as she  realised that everything she had written had to be re-thought and reconsidered.  It is a human story about the difference between theory and experience. It hinges on friendship, trust, and a reluctant awakening from naivety. Elizabeth Dauphinee shares struggles of self-doubt and loneliness.  She takes the reader to uncomfortable places as she considers what it is that forms morality—how it is that we discern right from wrong.
There are some disturbing scenes in the book, but nothing is over-egged, and its thriller-style structure keeps you reading to the conclusion.


Another book I have finished since the last blog entry is The Woman On The Stairs by Bernhard Schlink.  I really enjoyed The Reader and so I was excited to buy this.  It is a very different read.  Less compelling, but I did enjoy it. Opening with an evocative description of a painting of a naked woman on a staircase, the novel follows Irene's life and those of three men who have been involved with her. One of these narrates the story and so the reader is drawn into his version of events.  The plot moves from a staged kidnapping in Germany to an isolated island in Australian bush country where Irene has lived alone and separate from any of her former liaisons for many years.
But now she is dying and she wants to be found.  She exhibits her painting in a Sydney gallery, confident that the three men will seek her out.  She has something they want, and she knows it.
Like The Politics of Exile, this book explores what it means to be human. It explores what we need and want from life, what we conform to, what we rebel against.
It begins like a thriller, but ends as a philosophical narrative.  It was this marrying of two forms that made the book less cohesive for me.  But I liked Irene and part of me admired her for her independence and assertion of control at the end of her life. The narrator was fully formed,but the other two men were never fully convincing.


Lastly, Patrick Gale.  Many of you will know that I am a bit of a fan.  He writes people
gloriously well. He is also ruggedly handsome with perfect hair, and has a gentle, deep timbre that makes him a delight to listen to at literary festivals.
His latest novel came out in paperback last month, Take Nothing With You, and I was in the Bodleian Library to hear him speak about it in Oxford in April. I was also one of the first in the queue for signed copies and was delighted that he was happy to sign the first book I had read of his, Notes from an Exhibition - the novel that launched me into fandom!
The early chapters of the latest novel find Eustace isolated in a hospital room having radiation treatment so toxic that the medical physicist has to hand him the tablet with a pair of tongs. As Child 1 is currently in the middle of training for this very job, the line "Eustace tried and failed to imagine the journey whereby a woman became a physicist in a hospital lab" had resonance.  I confess to some disappointment in my authorial hero when the fact that the scientist was a woman was such an anathema. And I have to admit that though the story is good, it is not my favourite Gale. A bildungsroman, I expected some teenage awakening, but this is no Jane Eyre and the scenes were a bit too salacious for me! I'm sure I am a prude, but there are some things I really don't need to know.
That said, the parallel story involves music.  A cellist himself, Gale writes evocatively and convincingly about learning and playing the instrument.  Poetic and lyrical, I could imagine the sound of the cello and believe in the passion behind the determination to play.
The story is good, and the complexities of relationships across generations are well-told.

I have also just finished Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore. I can't write much about it as I'm going to use it as an example in my historical fiction essay for my final unit at Warwick (just one more piece to write - it has gone so quickly!), but I will close with an absolute recommendation to read. Set in Bristol at the time of the French Revolution, Dunmore explores what it means to be remembered or forgotten.

I'm currently reading Sarah Moss, Signs for Lost Children... good so far!

As always, thanks for reading my blog, and being patient with my lack of regularity as I complete this MA.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Post 84: Another Lit Festival and a bit of Segway for Good Measure...


Sheldonian Theatre
I have missed my regular blog slots with you all - my intention to post at least monthly during my MA has proved too ambitious.  But I'm here now, and eager to share newly-regenerated enthusiasm engendered at the Oxford Literary Festival.

The paperback release of Kate Atkinson's Transcriptions plopped through the letter box at the start of the Warwick Easter break.  I determined to use the vacation to read books other than those on the course - books I can actually write about with you!  A big fan after I first read  Life After Life, Kate Atkinson is one of those dependable authors I look forward to.  Transcriptions  is set in London in the war and features Juliet Armstrong, a young woman selected to type for MI5.  Her potential for espionage is soon spotted and she is given undercover jobs to infiltrate the fifth column - a network of Nazi sympathisers who sought to subvert the British war effort.

Despite its lofty subject matter, the book is quite lighthearted and has humour throughout.  I heard Kate Atkinson during Cheltenham's Literary festival in the autumn, and her reading of the section when Juliet goes out with her boss hoping for a little seduction, is highly comical. There is a penchant for parenthesis throughout which serve as wry or comic asides, and I confess that I found these very irritating.  Previous pupils of mine will no doubt remember how I endeavoured to rid them all of the practice of overusing brackets!

This was my view as I finished reading the novel. A bit of a dedicated book tourist, this was the first of three days I spent at the Oxford Lit Festival. I found a quiet corner in Waterstones cafe overlooking the apex of George Street and Cornmarket Street and sipped a latte.  It was as hushed as a 1970's library, with everyone either reading or working on laptops. Bliss.

I liked the central character of Transcriptions, but admit that many of the other characters tended to merge.  Her boss, with the delightful name of Peregrine Gibbons, is nicely drawn, though perhaps a bit of a 1940's English stereotype. The other key figure, Godfrey Toby is deliberately elusive, "a master of obfuscation." For this reason, he and the other shady characters of British intelligence seem to live in the shadows of the text,emerging only when they have a starring cameo, if there can be such a thing!

Running alongside the 1940's story is one set a decade later when Juliet is trying to discover who she is post-war. Juliet is now working for the BBC, and Atkinson makes parallels between the secret service and the broadcaster.  The remnants of the war story spill into the present and some of the mysteries of surveillance, subterfuge and disguise are revealed in the denouement  of the novel. Though definitely worth a read in the holidays, this isn't my favourite Atkinson. It seems a bit too light for its subject matter, which even the naivety of the protagonist cannot fully justify.  As the plot becomes more dense, difficult scenes have the same light, almost dismissive touch as earlier chapters. As a result, I was left wanting something more.

My next read was a delight - what you'd expect from the multiple award-winning Kazuo Ishiguro. This was a further delight of the Oxford festival. I'm slowly ticking off my I Spy Book of Karen's favourite authors, and this one was a treat of Nobel proportions.  In Oxford to collect the Bodleian Medal rather than to promote a new title, Ishiguro was in conversation with the Head of the Bodleian Libraries, Richard Ovenden.  Memory is a key theme in many if Ishiguro's novels, and he challenged the librarian about the subjectivity of archiving. He expressed concern that preservation can be too temporal - at risk of retaining only that which society values at the time.  Ovenden concurred, relating the tale that in the nineteenth century, the library passed up the opportunity to house first-edition copies of works by female authors...thus the George Eliots, Jane Austens and Bronte collections all went elsewhere.  To remedy such an oversight, they have since been purchased at significant cost, proving that custodians of the past really do need an eye on the progression and developments of the future.
Kazuo Ishiguro

Another exciting conversation that took place that day was a reunion with an old school friend.  We survived the ages of 11 to 16 firmly at one another's side - I needed to stay close so that I could copy her maths - but we have seen each other only once or twice since our paths diverted in 1988.  It was a real pleasure to pick up where we had left off, to swap family news and share our love of books. We were both very happy to queue for Kazuo Ishiguro's signature. I keep telling my children that their inheritance lies only in my signed copies, but they are dubious that my bookshelves will ever become a veritable goldmine. They are treasure to me however, and I'm seriously thinking of adding signed books as another shelf category!

The Ishiguro book I have just finished was An Artist of the Floating World.  All his novels are rhythmical and beautiful.  They force you to slow down and experience the language as well as plot, setting and characterisation. Set in Japan, coincidentally in a comparable time period to Transcription, 1948-1950, this book explores post-war rebuilding through the focus of one family.  The protagonist is a retired artist who is in negotiations for a marriage on behalf of his younger daughter.  This arrangement has echoes of a fading traditional Japanese culture, and is one example of the old being juxtaposed against the modernisation and democratisation of the country.

Much of this book is reflective, as Masuji Ono remembers his early days as an artist, first in the Takeda firm where he was required to paint quickly for foreign commissions, and then under the tutelage of Seiji Moriyama where he was encouraged to take more time and trouble over his talent.  The setting for Moriyama's art was "the floating world," the small hours of the night when the city takes on a different characteristic. He explained to his tutee that "...when I look back over my life and see I have devoted it to the task of capturing the unique beauty of that world, I believe I will be well satisfied." Preoccupation with recall is peppered throughout the narrative reflection, "It is possible of course, that Mori-san did not use those exact words...such phrases sound rather more like the sort of thing I myself would declare to my own pupils after we had been drinking a little at the Migi-Hidari..." Thus the reader doubts the reported conversations in the attempt to try to piece his past together, wondering what he might have done that would cause disharmony in marriage negotiations or cause distress to his former acquaintances.  There is a hint of decadence in his painting of the world of geishas and drink and the entertainment of the early hours of the morning, and you wonder whether this widower may have more secrets to tell.

The backdrop to Japan's history in 1948 is the picking up of a nation defeated in war.  Politics hedge around this novel and bleed into its art, but it is a subtle, insidious creeping.  Coupled with some caution over the reliability of the narrative voice, this novel weaves many threads into the story of one man, one family and one nation.

This was an excellent read which I would love to revisit.

Festival Marquee
I ended my adventures in Oxford by lunching in a quiet cafe overlooking the site where Cranmer met his death in 1556. After a delicious goats cheese and onion chutney panini, I meandered to the festival marquee where I read Mr Ishiguro's novel and eavesdropped on a young author chatting to her publicist about food writing. Kate Young was conversing excitedly about her new home, her success in Germany and how a blog writer came to be a published success...all inspiring stuff. I wished her luck as she took the stage in the vast literary tent, and was bold enough to encourage her to shine a light on her talent rather than bashfully hide it under a bushel.  A lovely lady - I wish her much continued success.

Following two steaming cups of tea and a yoghurt and berry flapjack, I closed my book and headed to the Divinity School where I was groupie enough to queue for door-opening.  Having travelled to North Cornwall a couple of years ago to hear Patrick Gale interview Maggie O'Farrell, I was eagerly anticipating seeing him again.  This time he was being interviewed about his latest novel, Take Nothing With You. I happened to get the best seats in the house and sneaked a quick photo of him and Sophie Ratcliffe before the "phones off" instruction was issued. As in Cornwall, he was delightful, engaging and warm. I remain a dedicated fan!  I'm in the middle of the novel now, so I promise another blog post before too long.


I may have also bought a rather attractive book by David Gilmore on three decades of the British in India.  His talk, the first I attended, was articulate, well researched and a story compassionately told. I might also have bought a further Ishiguro novel, When We Were Orphans and there is a possibility I popped into the original Oxfam bookshop and found a Bernhard Schlink I have not read before. More blog fodder for my to-be-read shelf.

And before I leave you this time, I must flag up hubby and his amazing efforts to raise money for Dementia UK.  In denial of his 50th birthday, he is proving his body still works by completing 50 sports in as many days.  I've been on a few, but yesterday's forest Segway trail was the most fun so far.  Thanks to all of the folk who are helping him, accompanying him or giving money.

It's my half century next year...could I read 50 books in 50 days do you think?

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Post 83: The One Where I Dream of Owning a Bookshop...

I remain convinced that January is a temporal anomaly. The calendar says 31 days, but it feels more like 45. Then February sneaks up on us and its almost half over before I can finish my coffee!

That's what I'm doing now.  I was persuaded by the barista in the Warwick Uni Costa that a nutella croissant in a muffin case was just the thing for a chilly, foggy morning.  It would have been rude not to take her recommendation and so I added the cakey-breakfasty snack to my latte order (and yes, I had a caramel shot in that too...)  It was good, but ask for it warmed if you're tempted to try.

I hope that you are tempted to try my latest read.  A Christmas present bought for me by Child 2, (but on a list of buy these for Mum please, so I can't give him credit for the selection), I have rapidly consumed The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell. It speaks into my alter ego, as there is a part of me that would dearly love to run a bookshop.  Like his establishment in Wigtown, Galloway, Scotland, my imaginary bookshop would have to have a resident plump cat, but unlike his, I would also want to serve coffee and cakes.  He does have a woodburner though,and comfy seats, so he is clearly encouraging his clientele to stay a while. They also have a bookshop bed where folk can stay.  This he inaugurated as part of the Wigtown Book Festival and it has become quite a thing.  I fancy a night in the shop myself...

I confess at this point to feeling a tad guilty that my copy of Shaun Bythell's book was almost definitely sourced from Amazon.  As a book lover, (a dying breed according to Shaun, but I do contentedly sit in in the rare-customer-type of someone who will spend both a long time and a lot of cash in a second-hand bookshop), I make an effort to support our local independent book stores and the plethora of second-hand outlets that adorn our High Streets.  But, I am also an Amazon devotee. Whilst reading The Diary of a Bookseller, at least five further titles have dropped through my letter box from the online giant. And I think I am fairly typical of my bibliophile friends.  I buy from charity shops, The Bell Bookshop in Henley and The Marlow Bookshop as a supplement to my Amazon addiction.  But if I bought solely from these outlets, I would probably more than halve my new book purchases on an annual basis. I buy because it is 
cheaper, brilliantly reliable and as solace.

Yes, solace.  Although one my favourite pursuits is to spend leisure time in a book shop, (hubby professes to have searched the whole of Marlow Books in the time I took to browse A-E), I do use Amazon as a kind of therapy...When I'm feeling low, bored or a bit underwhelmed with life, I find myself tapping on the infamous icon.  Knowing new books are winging their way to my door, sometimes even arriving the same day, is a great cure for winter blues.

My name is Karen and I am a book addict.

My uni course has proved a marvellous justification for swelling the number of titles in the Martin Library.  I am currently doing a module on Memory and so have purchased and read books on neuroscience, cognition and psychology. I have recently bought a book on patient HM who, in the 1960's underwent removal of both hippocampi in a bid to stem debilitating seizures.  His seizures stopped, but the radical brain surgery had unforeseen side effects which profoundly affected HM's life and enabled scientists to realise the significance of the hippocampus in memory formation.  Patient HM was, for the rest of his life, unable to make new memories. 
I could never have imagined that a creative writing course would have me knee-deep in such titles as The Fragile Brain  (which I keep mistyping as Brian!) and How We Remember - Brain Mechanisms of Episodic Memory.  It is absolutely fascinating and I confess to looking a couple of times on the Find your PhD site!  I think my lack of medical or psychological background will be enough to scupper those fledgling thoughts, however. Another bonus is that this sort of research has enabled me to better understand the field of Child 1's work in medical physics. 

I have also just had my first assignment grade back.  Not bad for an oldie, but room for improvement over the remainder of the course.  One aspect of my non-fiction work which I need to develop is research.  This term's memory course has enabled that in a way my previous modules didn't, and so I am busy scribbling notes to include them in revised and future chapters in my study of dementia and friendship.

The Diary of a Bookseller  may have dangerous side effects.  Through it, I learnt of the existence of Book Towns.  Who knew? Why didn't I know?  How could I have not known?  Such questions have plagued me since reading!  Apparently, book towns were born of economic difficulties in towns where previous industries and employment were declining.  Wigtown is one, as is its famous English sister, Hay-on-Wye. Book festivals were inaugurated in these places and multiple independent and second-hand bookshops sprung up in abandoned and disused buildings.  I think future holiday plans may have to centre around a European tour...  

This reminds me of Alnwick.  Though not an official book town, its second-hand bookshop is one of the biggest in the UK and is housed in a beautiful old railway station.  Charity shops have benefited from the bookish visitors and there are several that are dedicated solely to reading material.  On our trip to Northumberland in 2016, I bought enough titles to provide at least six months of Karen-reading-time. 

The Diary is immensely readable and made entertaining by Bythell's wry observations of staff and customers.  It is an insight into the richness of the book trade and the sad decline of expertise in the face of Amazonian competition. It has made  me value my "library" even more and, you never know, my many signed copies gained from multiple literary festivals may one day make the children some money!

Inspired, I have booked tickets for the Oxford Literary Festival later in the year. One talk is entirely focused on research for a fiction project, (my tutor would be very proud), and the others are authors I love.  A great sideshoot of literature is friendship. Talking about books provides common ground and it is often easier to broach a difficult topic if you have previously read something about it. I am very excited to be going to the Kazuo Ishiguro lecture with a school friend whom I have haven't seen for over a decade.  We spent most of our secondary school being the well-behaved, hard-working ones in the middle row.  I spent five years trying to match her in tests and failing to do so! That our reunion is to be at a literary festival seems perfectly appropriate.

And for those of you who want to follow the uni reading list that I can't write about for fear of plagiarism, these are the January and early Feb reads:
  • HhHh, Laurent Binet 
  • The White Castle, Orhan Pamuk 
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
  • Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
  • A Mercy, Toni Morrison
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Regular readers will realise that not reviewing these is hard for me!  Of the above, I unreservedly recommend Alias Grace and HhHh. I also enjoyed A Mercy and Wolf Hall, but would give a miss to The Name of the Rose and The White Castle!

My next non-uni read is likely to be Orwell's Burmese Days or Forster's A Passage to India or possibly a bit of Kipling... And yes, you might spot another area of research in those title choices!



Before I leave the February blogpost, I am going to dedicate it to my dear friend, Stella who passed away early this month. A graduate in 1949, she was a pioneer for women's education and she certainly encouraged and inspired me. I will always be grateful for her affection.

            Dec 1927 - Feb 2019


Friday, 4 January 2019

Post 82: Karen's Review of the Year

Don't judge me for the wrappers...brain food!
My intention to write a blogpost for December slipped away under the pretexts of deadlines, turkeys and mince pies. To remedy my neglect of you, I'm tucking  into a giant tin of Quality Street, (yes, tin, not a half-measures plastic box - you have to look in the right places) whilst I reflect on a year of good reads, big decisions and a ridiculous word count.

Loyal readers - and there are a delightful number of you - will know that I have just completed term 1 of an MA programme in creative writing.  It turns out that when the powers-that-be decide 22,000 words should be handed in in January, then Christmas still happens. It also turns out that to hand in 22,000 words worth reading, you have to write at least 50,000. So forgive me if I miss out a comma here and there...my fingers are on keyboard overdrive. And you, my friends, are my break.  I haven't pressed "submit" on my coursework yet, and a meeting today with my lovely already-published-and-bound-to-be-again friend, resulted in a five-hour re-write that I am, on her advice, putting to bed for at least the weekend.

And so to books.  Drum roll please as I prepare to reveal my total reads for 2018....42! Ten weeks short of a book a week, I'm still pretty happy with that. It matches my total for 2017, so my new year's resolution (one of them at least) has to be to aim for the 52 total.  I'm on target.  Three days into 2019 and I've finished a Christmas Stocking gift from Child 2...and before you ask, I didn't cheat.  I started it in bed after the clocks struck midnight on 31st.

It is frustrating that I can't write in detail about the books I am reading for my course.  If I so much as repeat half a clause from my blog to an essay, I will be plagiarising myself! I know! But I will launch my top ten for the year.  It's a strange reading year to look back on. I have read a lot, but haven't been evangelical about many titles. I'm going to try and balance required reading from Warwick this term with every other book being from my TBR shelf.  This maybe easier said than done.  I need to finish a book a week for the next ten weeks, and though I am two books into the set list for historical fiction already, I'm certain my reading speed is not up to a book every three or four days.  Maybe I should just kick my Holby City habit...

2018 Top Reads


10.  Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel
  9.  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  8.  Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  7.  Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
  6.  Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski
  5.  Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks
  4.  Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto
  3.  Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
  2.  All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski
  1.  Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

This is quite an eclectic mix, and I'm sure the two at numbers 9 and 10 are only placed there because they are soooo long!  If I ever write a book, it will not be of biblical proportions (unless we're talking book of Titus for example)!

Absolute favourite was Stay With Me.  I read this on holiday, post 79 if you want to take another look, and I was captivated by the characters, plot and pace of this story.  I'm definitely going to be keeping an eye out for book two from Ayobami Adebayo.

If you're not a fan of literary fiction then you might not like Housekeeping or All For Nothing as much as I did.  Sometimes I'm asked to define literary fiction and its a bit elusive. I tend to think of it as a quiet tone on big issues. Literary fiction is not polemical, though it may well open your mind to new ideas and ways of thinking. It's gentle but sometimes deceptively so.  Think hidden depths and you're there. Housekeeping is set in the lakeside town of Fingerbone and tells the story of orphaned sisters as they are looked after by a series of relatives.  It is about the hold of the past and the pull of the lake.  It is about madness and sanity and what is means to conform.  All For Nothing is set in East Prussia in January of 1945 at the beginning of the end of the Third Reich.  There are no big heroes and battles, but it tells the story of displacement, of lives never being the same again. It is based on a family already ravaged by the demise of the ranked classes and follows their further displacement as they attempt to come to terms with the need to join the mass exodus from their hometown to escape the danger of the Russian advance.

A good read that needs focus and a concentration of time to imbibe it properly is Do Not Say We Have Nothing.  Already reviewed in post 80, this is a broad sweep of Chinese modernity that shamed me for my ignorance and astounded me by the incredible storytelling and characterisation. If you don't come out of this one wanted to listen to a symphony orchestra, then I'd be very surprised.

If you want something different, then try Planet of the BlindThis is a work of non-fiction but is written creatively and engagingly, inviting the reader to come on his journey of sight loss.  The descriptions are evocative and, if you don't have a tear in your eye by the end, then I'm frankly shocked.  I fully intend to read the second book he has written once I've persuaded hubby that a new bookcase is an investment worth making for our three bed semi...
And if non-fiction takes your fancy, I liked Skating to Antarctica for its evaluation of childhood and the impact it has had on the author.  I enjoyed most of the books I read for the non-fiction unit at Warwick, so if any of you would like a full list, then message me.

I hope that has given you a flavour of the year just gone.  I was delighted to receive a hug from a blog reader over Christmas who told me she really looks forward to my posts.  I must apologise that my sojourn into uni life is putting their regularity on hold...but you never now, maybe, just maybe, I will be able to list my own book on here one day.  Even if I don't, this course is teaching me so much.  I had no idea I had such capacity for re-writing and re-writing and then re-writing again.

Before I go, The Tattooist of Auschwitz needs a mention.  I think I was meant to read it as I have been tempted by the beautiful cover several times in bookshops both real and virtual, and both my children considered it as a gift for me for Christmas.  Child 2 made the purchase and it was a good one.  Coming on the back of such a lot of literary fiction, I did feel this story had even more detail than the author, Heather Morris gave.  It was, despite its harrowing subject matter, an easy read.  Knowing it is based on a true life story, gives this book has a greater resonance than it would have done if it were wholly fictional.  I resisted the photos at the back until I had completed the read, wanting to picture Lale and Gita for myself before confronting their reality. Spanning 1942-1945,the focus on the individual makes this story possible.  So much history was made and destroyed in the Nazi concentration camps, that making it personal is the most effective way to communicate the horrors of the period.  When Lale was so weakened and wasted that he found he had lost compassion for the dead man he was forced to carry, it makes the reader understand the energy needed just to stay alive in Auschitz. There are other cameo stories and the one about Cilka is heartbreaking, especially when you read the postscript.
A comparable and less-publicised novel that I enjoyed perhaps more was The Dressmaker of Dachau, reviewed several years ago now in post 19. And for me, the absolute pinnacle of writing in this field is Corrie Ten Boom's, The Hiding Place. I am shocked to see that I have never reviewed this, so it is definitely time for a re-read. 

Thank you for reading with me on this year where Child 1 got married, I stepped off the teaching conveyor belt and stepped onto my MA and where hubby and Child 2 stayed resolutely supportive of every hair-brained idea I dropped into the arena.

BBC pic of London bringing in 2019
I am very grateful for the belief my family show in me.  I am very grateful for their ability to read every one of my stories and essays to give critical and valuable feedback.  And I am grateful to you for providing me with an audience which means that at least some of what I write doesn't just stay locked in my laptop.

Happy New Year to You All and Blessings for 2019.






Friday, 16 November 2018

Post 81: Serious Sweet Nocturnal Suicide or What I Have Been Reading!

Tired student opting for sofa
learning in University House
Currently, I'm playing hooky.  I should be editing a non-fiction assignment on dementia or flexing my newly-invigorated fictional prowess against a stubbornly evasive heroine, but instead I'm here, chatting to you! To make this more acceptable, I've decided that blog writing is a clear development of non-fiction skills.  I am subduing the small voice in my head that is saying 11.35 is work-time rather than hobby-time...

This post finds me in week seven of the first ten-week-term at Warwick and I confess that my 48-year-old eyes are not as stoic as those of my undergraduate days.  I remember when I could wake up, sit up, stick my glasses on my nose and read, and read then read some more.  Now I need to open my lids slowly against the light, pop on my specs and wait for the room to float into focus.  Reading is definitely a post-breakfast activity!  I also find that my eyes get sore: they object if I attempt to read for longer than an hour, and they tolerate screen activity for about three.  Mmmm.  My MA is only about reading and writing. It has no experiments or physical activity to detract from the eyeball work.  And then I have to drive home, an hour and a half in the dark...

The cat sometimes decides for me:
there's no opening that submissions
folder for a while!
But I am stoic.  And I am loving the challenge of being regarded as a writer.  There is no hand-holding here.  The most frequent question bandied around the group of fifty MA Writing students, is "What are you writing?"  There is no question that we all have something to say.  There is no question that we can all write with competence, even if flair is a longer time coming.  It is stimulating, encouraging, exciting and exhausting!

I think some of my langour comes from it being week seven.  At Oxford, the week-five-dip is a "thing", but Child 2 usually feels it a week later.  I'm just slow on the uptake!  Or perhaps it's just that the adrenaline that kept me going initially has now passed. Or that I'm missing half terms...Despite this, the child-in-a-sweet-shop reaction of being taught and mentored by published authors has definitely not abated.

This links in with my reading for the past few weeks.  My fiction tutor is David Vann and I wanted to see how he wrote, how the teaching he gives in class is reflected in his own novels.  I began with Legend Of A Suicide which is a fictionalised account of a tragedy from his own childhood.  I think I'm going to try and score some brownie points here (not that I think my blog will be high on David's list to read) and comment on the rhythm of the prose.  A scholar in Old English, he replicates its Germanic cadences in his work.  This is something that apparently other reviewers have failed to notice! As an undergraduate, it was compulsory for English students to take a unit in Old English and I was absolutely awful at it, scoring lower in that module than in anything else I studied over the three years.  It stands to reason therefore, that I would definitely rank with those unseeing reviewers if I hadn't been given the benefit of David's own wisdom and understanding of his prose!

Technicalities aside, this is a short novel and is highly evocative.  It is set in Alaska on a remote island where Roy and his father are spending an entire winter.  It is meant as a boys' camp, a time to build relationships and make memories, but as the title suggests, I'm not giving away any spoilers when I say that this is not going to be a story with a happy ending.
The description of landscape is highly effective.  As you will have gathered over the course of my reviews, I am not a big fan of lengthy description, but this works because it is almost always constructed as a way of seeing the people within the landscape.
The story centres on Roy, the young boy, and is told from a first- person perspective. Empathy is created early in the novel as we witness his reluctance to spend a whole season away from his mother, sister and friends. His loyalty to his father together with some coercion from his mother prevail, and we soon see them setting off.
Arriving by a tiny plane with all the provisions they will need to set up camp, Roy and his father are rendered immediately alone as the pilot leaves the water and can only re-visit if the winter weather allows. There is no chance of backing out. Of getting off. Of escaping.
The first half of the novel focuses on their bush-skills (or lack of them) and the tensions and joys between father and son. Any heartening moments are offset by his father's tendency to cry at night, but this is only ever explored in Roy's fear and trepidation - never openly discussed or acknowledged.

Part one ends with an absolute shocker!  No spoilers, but make sure you have enough time to read on.  You cannot leave it there.  That ending was a guarantee of a much later night than I had intended.
Part two is an exploration of everything that follows the revelation of part one, so I am not going to review this. I know that many of you read titles following this blog, and I have managed over the eighty posts so far, not to ruin the reading by giving too much away.

It is a quiet book, evocative of landscape and conveying the tenacity and failings of being human. It is also short...which in the light of the amount of reading and writing I have to do, was a further blessing!

This post is developing into a bit of a tome itself, so I will spend less time on the second title.  A L Kennedy is a past Booker judge and her novel Serious Sweet was itself shortlisted for the prize in 2016. Ignoring my Hubby's point that surely it should be Seriously I was very curious to read this novel.  Fondly known as ALK around the Writer's Room on campus, she is jetted in at infrequent points throughout the year as a one-to-one mentor for anyone on the programme who wants her specific advice.  I simply had to offer up 3000 words of my own for her scrutiny.

And it is scrutiny indeed.  She has a 54 point guide to writing improvement and work is returned dotted with numbers. Mine was full of (30), (30), (30) which meant I needed more detail, but from the specific character point of view.  Duly noted (see the stubborn heroine of paragraph one)!

Anticipating my one-to-one with her, again I decided to see the tone and style of her writing.  I have this theory that reading an author's fiction gives you a window into their psyche (though reading some of what I have written this term, I hope this is not always the case)!

Serious Sweet is a lengthy novel, told from the perspective of two protagonists, Jon and Meg. They co-exist in London but have not met.  The premise is that of two slightly world-weary, cynical and lonely individuals whom life has worn down. They are both a bit broken but they are fighting against their brokenness.
The prose is unusual.The narrative voice is written in standard font, whilst a stream of consciousness is embedded amongst it in italics to signify what the characters are thinking. Then there are further emboldened sections throughout that appear to give random accounts of other people who inhabit the capital city.
Warwick campus in the
autumn. It's been so warm
I have been reading outside!
I confess that I found the italic thought too much at times, and I skimmed some.  This fits with my reading past.  Inordinately proud that I was the only one in my undergrad group to finish Ulysses (for the uninitiated this is written entirely as a stream of consciousness), I never made any claim to understand it! Serious Sweet provides no comparable difficulties in understanding but I did find Jon to be a bit of a whinge! Meg was definitely my favourite character, and if you have ever been curious about gynae examinations, this book is not a bad place to start!

I'm currently reading Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes; this should now make sense of the bizarre title of this blog-post.  It is a free choice of reading, unconnected with study, and is a welcome balm to the required texts that I need to annotate and explore each week.  His prose is beautiful. He is the don as far as I'm concerned, so reading his work is like wrapping up in a linguistic duvet of brilliance.

With that in mind, I'm off for another comfort-read.  Or maybe it is time to dust off that protagonist...