Friday, 12 October 2018

Post 80: New Beginnings

I like a nice round number, and this being my eightieth post seems to me to be something worth liking!  When I set out to write a reading blog, I never expected so many of you to log on and read my musings. And they would be pretty pointless without you, so thank you very much for being enthusiastic and loyal.

Outside the entrance to
Central Campus, Warwick.
My most recent read has been Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing.  This was a gift from two former students at the completion of their A-Level course.  They are now both at university for the first time and I really hope they are enjoying their first taste of independence and academic rigour!

I'm experiencing a second bite at that particular cherry!  After years of fiddling about with creative writing and entering a few competitions, I have taken the plunge to return to study.  Last week saw me at my first seminar since 1991!  And yes, I am older than most of the other postgrads, but I am not the oldest! I am daunted but I am not yet a quivering wreck (though hubby may dispute that by making reference to last Friday when I decided that I couldn't possibly meet all the deadlines for this term)!

This new venture may impact my blog.  Much of my reading from now until March will be dictated by the course.  Because of self-plagiarism (who knew that was even possible!) I probably won't review all the titles that I read for the Warwick Writing Masters Programme.  I will list them because I know lots of you will be interested, but I can't risk reviewing them when I may need to use some of the content in my analytical essays!

Discovering that selfies
behind the sign make it read
the right way round!
That said, I will endeavour to maintain personal reading. My to-be-read shelf is groaning under the weight of my reading ambitions, and a recent visit to Cheltenham Literary Festival with my cousin-in-law found me jotting at least eight titles down on my Christmas list! I have informed child 2 of the existence of this list already!

Cheltenham was fun.  Its arenas are however, much bigger than those in Oxford, Henley or North Cornwall Lit Fests.  I think I prefer the more intimate festivals where your authorial heroes are within arm's reach and a conversation afterwards is more than possible.  The marquee in which we heard Kate Atkinson and Mary Beard speak was huge!  I had to remind myself that this was happening here and now as I needed to watch the big screen in order to see the interviews properly. That said, it was well done and in a beautiful setting.  The company was great and I got to tick another one of my favourites off my I-Spy-An-Author list.  I wish I had Kate Atkinson's creativity...she confessed that she always has a waiting room in her brain for books yet to be written...and they all have titles!

And to another very talented writer...

Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2016 and Baileys Women's Prize in 2017, Madeleine Thien's novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an epic that details modern Chinese history from the late 1940s to the twenty-first century, but don't let that put you off!  Its central characters are totally convincing and it is easy to feel empathy for them.  Written across three generations, the main character is Sparrow who bridges the elders, who are his parents and uncle and aunt, and the youth, represented by his niece Zhuli and his daughter Ai-ming.


I enjoyed the book because it opened a country and period of history that I knew very little about.  It gave me context and personal detail of the 1989 Tienanamen Square massacre and shamed me that as a 19-year-old student in Southampton, I watched the news with only a passing interest.  I was 19, only one year older than Ai-ming.  I should have been interested in what students were protesting about, but I was too self-absorbed and didn’t understand what political manipulation or oppression was.  The beauty of fiction is that it can awaken the political and moral consciences of readers who were previously naive.  I have certainly benefited from works set in the American South, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Post-colonial works really do have the capacity to widen our world views.

  
It is Ai-ming who opens the novel.  She arrives in Canada from China in the wake of Tienanmen Square, finding refuge in a foreign country.  She goes on to America by the end of chapter 4 and  thereafter is silence.  Much of the novel builds the background to her life but one of the key draws of the book is the desire to know what happens to Ai-ming.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing tells of a strong story-telling culture,  where stories managed to survive when culture was being policed, a culture where human desire for hope came from stories told, retold, copied and changed.  The craft of calligraphy is central to The Book of Records, a story within the story that is used to fuel romance and reunite lost loves.  Another strand of this complex story is that of music.  Sparrow is a composer at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and his niece, Zhuli, is a violinist.  The notes of Bach and Stravinksy strain to be heard through the written word as the author ably communicates the significance of music to their lives.  Set against the backdrop of the cultural revolution, it is clear that state imposition of set scores and set composers to both study and play would threaten to stifle creativity. 
As well as poetry, story telling and music, there is maths! She conveys the significance of zero and this is reflected in her chapter numbers....see if you can spot where it shifts and why!

This is a piece of literary fiction that deserves your time.  Like all good novels with a foot in history, it uses fiction to convey historical reality. Take a deep breath, curl up for a long time and dive in.

Finally as promised, what I have been reading this week:
Benjamin Zephaniah: The Life And Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah
Andrea Ashworth: Once In A House on Fire
Seamus Deane: Reading in the Dark
William Faulkner: Barn Burning
Flannery O'Connor: Collected Short Stories

My favourite from those was Andrea Ashworth.  It was a harrowing memoir of a troubled childhood, but it is evocative, empathetic and conjures up a 1970's childhood, complete with pink marshmallow biscuits (remember those?!) perfectly.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Post 79: The Wedding, a Holiday in September and Several Books....

 A Wedding, A Holiday and Several Books....
Elafonissi 

This is a summer to remember, and I use the present tense advisedly.  I am typing this whilst sitting under a veranda in a village suburb just southwest of Chania in Crete.  Whilst many of my friends and colleagues are battling with new terms and the likely shortfall in the number of available exercise books, I have been seeing the azure blue of the Mediterranean for the first time. This really is a summer extension.  We left England with temperatures dropping to the teens and now I’m relishing the warm breeze and high twenties for an extra week.

I’ve not written this just to gloat to those of you who are at work. Whether your job is in a school or an office, I realise that school holidays affect everyone.  Hubby’s office is run at a slower pace in August as the parents take holidays in shifts. He works more from home as there are no courses to run and fewer colleagues to work with. As the children return to school, so working patterns re-establish themselves everywhere. I realise therefore, that this September vacation is an indulgence, and one that we decided we deserved following the momentous events of firstly, me handing in my notice after 16 years to embark on something potentially vacuous, potentially life-changing and secondly, and even more momentous, celebrating the marriage of child 1 to her fiancĂ©. So in the space of a couple of months I have got rid of the moniker of teacher and gained a new one of mother-in-law.  Even the sight of the title recalls the lumbering hippo in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin

I shall do my utmost not to inspire such dread when son-in-law thinks of me…but I do confess that in my slightly emotional state as I entered the church, I did totally forget to greet him, walking straight past in order to give his Mum a hug! I hope he has forgiven me; indeed (and I know I’m biased but…) the sight of my beautiful girl coming down the aisle on the arm of her Dad was enough to banish anything other than love from any of our hearts.

And whilst they have been honeymooning in Cape Verde, I have been totally amazed at how tired a human being can be.  Hubby and I got back home exhausted and overwhelmed and wanting to speak of nothing other than the wedding.  It was a perfect day, but surely they don’t exist?!  To us, it was wonderful and we were reluctant to move beyond it to a reality that seemed less vital.

So we were glad to have booked this late summer holiday.  We have used Crete to re-charge our batteries and realign our brains to something other than wedding-central.  Today is unusual for us.  We have decided to ignore all the beaches, coves, towns, villages and antiquities out there and stay put.  We are reading, playing keepy-uppies in the pool (minus child one…sad times) and basking in the sunshine.  We are, for the first time in weeks, drawing breath.  I like it.

The holiday has also been a blissful time of reading.  I completed The Imposter by Javier Cercas on the three-hour flight, finished The Island by Victoria Hislop by the pool a couple of days ago and today, sitting with my feet dangling in what-I-confess-to-be freezing pool water, I relished the ending of Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me.  Hubby and child 2 have predicted that I might complete three books in addition to the one completed on the plane.  I aim to please!

But before I launch into my next tome, I am compelled to write about those just finished.  The first one is a Warwick Uni reading list title for the non-fiction course.  I confess that after initial enthusiasm for the style and personality of the author, I found the Spanish historical detail a bit too dense to hold my complete interest for the whole book.  That said, it was fascinating to read a non-fiction text (or novel without fiction as he terms it throughout) where the authorial voice is as significant as that which he reports.  He used the book to study the deception of Enrich Marco, and whilst this is fascinating in and of itself, he also uses the process to evaluate his own legitimacy as a writer and perhaps even as a human being.  He considers how far a writer and novelist can be compared to a liar.  He suffers qualms of conscience as he wonders whether an author is as guilty of mass deception as a fraudster.  This is interesting but perhaps not as relevant as he makes it.  In places, the book is too much about him and not enough about Marco.  A novelist has permission to imagine, to push the boundaries of belief and invent characters and situations.  Marco did not.  Instead he invented a past for himself that gave him a platform in various public roles.  And though his public work was done largely for the greater good, he did it all off the back of a lie.  He had not been a resistance fighter in the time of Franco, he had not been exiled from Spain for his politics and he had never been incarcerated in a concentration camp by the Nazis.  No matter what the end- result of his lies, it cannot be denied that he traded on the sufferings and persecutions of others to give himself a story.

As I intimated before, this is not an easy read, but he is a figure worth reading about.  You then however, face the dilemma of continuing his deceptive legacy, giving airtime to a voice that many believe should be punished by silence rather than speculation.

My next read was an easy one.  I had read The Island before and enjoyed it.  Written by Victoria Hislop, it centres on the history of Spinalonga, a Venetian fortress island off the coast of Northern Crete.  Although it is several hours away from where we are staying, I always like to read a novel set where I am on holiday, and after the past few weeks, I needed a comfort-read that I knew I would relax with and enjoy. It has been published for several years and won the Richard and Judy book club award in 2006 so many of you will no doubt have read it and not require another review.

Spinalonga Island
So I’ll keep it brief.  Alexis is a young woman who travels to Crete with permission from her Cretan mother to discover a past that she has never divulged to her daughter.  It is a past that she feels ashamed of, but which Fotina, the elderly woman who reveals her mother’s story to Alexis, weaves with compassion and integrity.  Beginning with her Grandmother’s generation, we learn of the leper colony at Spinalonga and Eleni’s incarceration there following her  diagnosis. Her husband supplies the island with goods on his little fishing vessel and thus keeps in touch.  Her death is inevitable and painful, and so Georgios begins the task of bringing up his daughters without his wife’s advice.  The novel follows this trajectory, exploring the different choices made by his two daughters, Anna and Maria.

This is a story of hope and the story of a family.  It also has as its background a significant part of Cretan history as the novel spans the Nazi invasion in World War 2 and the resistance of local men and women to German occupation.

Chania harbour
As I read this on a beach, a balcony and poolside, it was lovely to be able to relate to the distances between Chania, Rethymno, Iraklion and Plaka.  As Alexis made the coastal road journey to Plaka, she took the same road we had just navigated during our day trip to Knossos.  Novels open our eyes and make places make sense, but being here and borrowing its context for a week made the book a more relevant and compelling read.

My final read was Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo.  This is her debut novel and I think she will quickly become known as another great Nigerian writer. This is literary fiction in that it is well-crafted and intelligent, unafraid to make demands on the reader at times as the narrative voice switches irregularly between Yejide and Akin. It is at heart a love story, but instead of romance, it details the hard decisions that go hand-in-hand with choosing to love someone.  There are lies and deceit in this novel, some that can be excused whilst others appal.  Many of these are justified by their conformity to traditional Nigerian culture.  There is pressure to marry and more pressure to bear children.  And here is the mainstay of the plot.  Yejide longs for a child and spends many years failing to conceive.  Despite the dual narrative voices, she is undoubtedly the protagonist and the reader is wholly empathetic with her to the end.

Yejide is a daughter brought up without a mother, and her father’s other wives work together to shun her and let her know that she, despite being her father’s first wife’s child, is not equal to their offspring. In a heart-breaking recollection reasonably late in the novel, she recounts how the other mothers gathered their children at night to tell them stories, taking them into rooms with doors shut and barred to her.  She would move steadily from door to door, working out which story she could hear the most clearly.  There she would sit, deprived of storytime but imbibing those told to other children.

This loneliness is dispelled when she and Akin fall in love.  He promises to fill the gaps of her childhood. But to be childless becomes a burden bigger than being motherless and this novel explores the searching heartache of a barren marriage.  The cultural background is significant: Nigerian in-laws exert pressure on the couple and urge them to take part in ceremonies and rituals.  A modern couple, they put more faith in hospitals and medicine, but neither route creates happiness.

Their lives become increasingly complex and the narrative is compelling.  I don’t want to go further into the story because I really want you to read this for yourselves. Adebayo is a strong new voice in literature and she writes convincingly, enabling readers to understand the story from multiple viewpoints.  Read this book.

I’m now beginning Drown by Junot Diaz, a Pulitzer prizewinner. This is part of the required reading for the fiction part of my MA course due to start in just under three weeks. It is hard to be terrified as I sit in a garden with pomegranates and grapes ripening below a Cretan sun. The banana plant waves its luscious vibrant green leaves in the breeze and I sense our local taverna may be calling me for a last sample of its delicious fare.  There is plenty of time yet to get nervous and feel out of place.  For now, I am quiet and still and there remains a reasonable pile of books for me to read in this rather beautiful place. I will push any concerns to one side and enjoy the indulgence of this late summer break.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Post 78: Looking Back in all Weathers

Fountains Abbey with thanks
to Professor Colin Platt of
Southampton University for
inspiring me to make this visit.
Summer always heralds a good spell of reading and this year's heatwave has meant that sitting still in the shade has been the most sensible option! Since my last post, I have finished This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and I have listened to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.  I'm currently reading All For Nothing by Walter Kemposki.

I read much of Wolf Hall in a window seat at a hotel in Harrogate.  I had harboured a desire to visit both Fountains Abbey and the Bronte Parsonage for over thirty years! That's the thing with UK-based wish-lists: you can put things off indefinitely. We decided that these ambitions weren't going to realise themselves, so we used Child 2's holiday to Valencia as an excuse to take a mini-break of our own to the wilds of Yorkshire.

And it was indeed the north!  Even in the heatwave and with the wildfires in Manchester, the temperature gauge dropped steadily as we headed up the M1.  And by the time we reached Fountains, the heavens had opened! The following day in Haworth proved that the moors have their own weather system...we walked sections of the Bronte Way and the Pennine Way in wind, sunshine, heat, clouds and horizontal rain! I'm just glad that I had waterproofs and walking shoes rather than skirts and a bonnet!

Heading up to Wuthering Heights
Having been to the Parsonage and been tempted by a handsome set of Bronte quotation mugs, I realised that with such a limited number of titles between them, I really should have read them all.  But I haven't.  I, like many before me, have a much-thumbed and re-read copy of Jane Eyre and, much as I enjoyed walking to Top Withens, I have previously admitted that Wuthering Heights would never make my top ten reads (sorry Rhys).  But that is the sum total of my shameful Bronte reading.  I have Shirley, Villette, The Professor and Tenant of Wildfell Hall on my shelves, but rather like the parsonage itself, they have been on my getting-around-to list for several decades!

I decided long ago that I don't like multiple books on the go at the same time, but I am happy to have an audiobook for the kitchen and the car whilst physically reading another.  I thoroughly enjoyed Anne Bronte's Tenant of Wildfell Hall on Audible. It amused me how often I thought the story was coming to a natural end, only for another quite similar plot arc to spring from its predecessor!  It is dated in its courtship rituals of course, but quite rightly is renowned for its feminist themes.  Helen Graham/Huntingdon is a strong portrayal of a woman who is not prepared to be obliged to a man who is adulterous and selfish. Like Jane Eyre, Anne Bronte produces a heroine who leads the way to female equality and modernity.  What else would we expect from Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell!

650 pages annotated, and still
the spine isn't bent!  Result!    
And so to another feminist in Anne Boleyn (or perhaps merely an ambitious and self-seeking would-be Queen, depending on your take on Tudor history). I confess here that I have previously owned a copy Wolf Hall and subsequently sent it to a charity shop, daunted by both its size and a curious use of the third person in the narrative voice.  I re-bought it because it was on the Warwick Uni reading list for historical fiction. With the incentive to read as much as I can before I get there, I took to the tome with renewed enthusiasm.  And it paid off.  With all long books, reading them quickly is a marked advantage, otherwise you risk being bogged down in the detail or, psychologically, just getting stuck in the middle, when your bookmark doesn't seem to be making significant progress towards the end.  I gave myself a minimum target of 50 pages a day and that seemed to be a workable strategy.

The book centres on the rise of Anne Boleyn and her determined efforts to become Queen.  Alongside such ambition are powerful men of court and a constant undercurrent of religious reformation that was sweeping Europe and infiltrating England even prior to Henry VIII's establishment as Head of the Church through the Act of Supremacy. I studied this period in history whilst an undergraduate and so to read a fictionalised version was very interesting.

Mantel has won major awards for this book, and I can see why.  The historical detail is accurate and she involves a raft of characters from the English courts and the international scene.  She uses Thomas Cromwell as her homogenising character: the novel opens with the fall of Wolsey, and Cromwell is relevant here as Wolsey's right-hand-man.  But Cromwell is a commoner and as such has no right to the accolades he later received from the King.  Chapter 2 makes it clear that he came from nothing.  He had an impoverished and cruel childhood which led to him fleeing abroad to escape from his father.

Image result for hans holbein thomas cromwell
Portrait of Cromwell by
Hans Holbein
I particularly liked the way that Mantel depicted Cromwell. I remember my history books portraying him as calculating, with little or no compassion, but she presents him differently.  It is clear that he is vastly intelligent: he speaks multiple languages and is shrewd in his dealings in business and in court. He sets himself up as a lawyer and moneylender and acquires both wealth and influence.  But he is loyal and loving. His relationships with his wife, children and household members are tender and genuine, and he even earns respect and some grudging friendship from his enemies. I liked this.  It seems logical that such a successful man, one who can survive the fall of his master only to rise from the debris with greater power and influence, must be good with people.  Mantel presents him as someone who is straightforward and can be both hated and trusted at the same time.

Indeed it is this characterisation that compels readers to the end of the book.  She is sparing in revealing his past, and we stay interested in what he may have done as a child, a young man and a soldier.  There are hints of brutality, but they are never fully exposed, so empathy is constant throughout. There is also humour, revealed in Cromwell's conversation with his son when the Hans Holbein painting is finished: “He turns to the painting. "I fear Mark was right."
.... I once heard him say I looked like a murderer," and Gregory responds with, "Did you not know?” 
By the end of the book, Anne Boleyn is Queen (I don't think that counts as a spoiler!) but her hold over Henry is waning.  It definitely needs its sequel and I think I may Bring Up The Bodies on my holiday in Crete later in the summer!

This is a challenging read, but satisfying.  The construct is masterful as Mantel consistently refers back to small details and expands on them as the story progresses.  And the title? Wolf Hall serves as a foreshadowing of the next Queen in line for an ageing Henry.  The Hall is the family seat of the Seymours and is a prime example of delectable detail throughout the novel as we learn of incest and bullying in the household through apparently inconsequential hearsay.  That Thomas Cromwell likes Jane himself may well make for a compelling plotline in the sequel.  I look forward to it!

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Post 77: Diaries and Dystopias

Some of the English Dept at the
 farewell event

I wrote this blog whilst in the throes of my last week of work.  It was very strange to experience feelings of excitement, sadness, trepidation and nostalgia all at the same time. I have been at my current school for 16 years and so was not looking forward to the final Goodbye, but it is definitely the right time for me to look forward, take a deep breath and jump into something new.

And I have done a bit of jumping already.  I recently finished A Woman In The Crossfire by Samar Yazbek, which was on Warwick’s MA reading list for last year.  It details living in Syria during the Arab Spring and is a stark reminder to the West of what war, oppression and injustice actually look like in a real context.

I began to wonder where the title Arab Spring came from.  It sounds far too sanitised for the experiences that Yazbek describes.  Political scientist Marc Lynch has said that  "[Arab Spring is] a term I may have unintentionally coined in a 6 January 2011 article" for Foreign Policy magazine.[1] But the reality was not a graceful leap, nor was it a fountain of refreshing water.  It was hard political reality that affected the everyday lives of all Syrian citizens.

The book is set out non-chronologically, but following a broad pattern of progression of the revolution.  There is significant description of various Fridays: this was the day that demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the regime.  Each Friday demonstration has been given a name and Yazbek often quotes the statistics associated with each massacre. 
And here the reality begins to take hold.  People were exercising their rights to protest, and many met their deaths, were wrongly arrested, tortured or imprisoned.  As part of a privileged clan, the Alawites, Samar Yazbek’s family were part of the Syrian regime.  For her to speak out against them meant that her life and that of her daughter were in constant peril.
However, her need to tell the truth of her country’s plight was greater than her fear and this book is a testimony to that. As an established author prior to the uprising, her retelling of events is, in places, figurative and poetic. In others, she is stark and lets the facts speak for themselves. Interesting to me was the balance between her own emotions, fears and reactions and the inclusion of eyewitness accounts to verify her interpretation of history.  These eyewitness pieces are formed from interviews that she conducted with contacts resistant to the Assad regime.

My other read compares well with this. Margaret Atwood is well-known for her dystopian fiction and has recently been quoted as saying that nothing that is depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale has not actually occurred in an area of the world under a totalitarian regime.  This is profoundly shocking, and made reading of the tortures inflicted in Syria more focused.

The novel I have just completed is The Heart Goes Last. As far as Atwood’s dystopias go, this one is more light-hearted, perhaps even tongue-in-cheek in places. It has elements of The Truman Show meets 1984 in that the central characters choose to enter Consilience: a self-contained community that once you have agreed to become part of, then you cannot return to the outside world. Depicted as being somewhere in America, it has elements of Gilead from The Handmaid’s Tale.  The premise is that residents spend one month living life in the community and the next month in Positron, the prison at the centre of the scheme.  This is intended to make all citizens contribute to society and prison is used, not as a punishment, but as an alternative way of life that serves the wider community. It is not as sinister as Handmaid or the Oryx and Crake series with cases of switched and mistaken identities forming a significant thread of the plot. There are sinister elements though, many of which resound in contemporary life: the management of the media and the news being a prime example.  Such media manipulation was also a factor in the Syria accounts: indeed, I was left wondering why I had no knowledge of the extent of suffering endured by political prisoners there.  The news I watched reported the macro politics rather than the effects on individuals who were trapped or who chose to stay in the country.

Another sinister aspect of Atwood’s novel was the way in which people were disposed of.  It was chilling to read how quickly “executioners” became desensitised to their task. But this was fiction.  In her Syrian account, Yazbek writes, “I never thought murderers could sprout up out of the street like trees,” and she goes on to ask, “how did the security services make people so savage?”  This humanist, moral voice is evident throughout her diaries, incredulous to the final pages that human beings can inflict so much agony on one another.

This is the message that I’m left with.  We need a more humane world where we do care about one another’s stories and where we find it abhorrent that people want to maim and kill one another.  We needs to think less about power and more about compassion, less about what divides us and more about our common good.

Both reads were stimulating, but Samar Yazbek’s is a deeply disturbing account of abject inhumanity.  You should not enjoy it, but it is worth becoming more knowledgeable about the world in which we live.  Atwood’s had less power than her previous dystopian works.
After all this, I needed light relief.  Apart from a disappointing ending, Starter for Ten by David Nicholls was an enjoyable, wry reflection of some of the parodies of youth and university life.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring#Etymology

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!

Sissinghurst
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...