Sunday, 25 October 2015

Post 20: A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

My reading has sped up of late...must be the football season!  While the boys spend many units of 90 minutes glued to the not-so-small-screen in the now-entitled Man-Room, I am free to pursue more civilised recreation.

Half term is upon us, and I have cunningly given essays to be completed over this period rather than have them to mark!  I am hoping that such a plan will give rise to more reading and writing time.  I was reading the author Q&A with Patrick Gale at the end of his novel, A Place Called Winter  and he writes of his practice of "daily walks with [his] dogs..walk[ing] through one landscape with [his] head ..full of another."  So maybe I need a canine to kick start my writing career...?!  Not sure that will meet with hubby approval though.

That Patrick Gale is absorbed by the landscape and characters of his books as he walks and lives his daily life is not a surprise to his readers. In my view, he definitely shares top ranking with my other favourite, Kate Atkinson as one of the best contemporary novelists; Gale evokes character with empathy and tenderness.  He is equally good at portraying men and women and he finds hope in the muddle of humanity. And I think this is the key for me.  He is positive about human experience.  He does not shy away from conflict or difficulty but he allows compassion and tenderness to drive his characterisation.

And so to the nitty-gritty of his latest novel: A Place Called Winter is, in some ways, a departure from his previous novels (and, yes, I've read them all!).  The protagonist is Harry Cane, who was Patrick Gale's mother's grandfather! The plot is weaved around uncertainty as to his character, and mystery as to why anyone would take up the lifestyle offered by Canadian emigration and settlement in the early years of the twentieth century. And so Gale makes his magic.

Harry Cane is a likeable character, somewhat foppish and naive.  A legacy from a wealthy but distant father ensured that he and his brother, Jack were well provided for.  The contrast in the brothers is evident.  Jack, though equally privileged, has drive.  He studies and becomes a veterinary surgeon, never dependent on his inheritance.  Harry, on the other hand, never works.  He spends his day walking, reading the paper and at his club.  He is somewhat at a loss, and where we might despise such vacuity, we recognise his dissatisfaction with his lot, and empathise with his inability to see a route out.  When he meets a kindred quiet soul in Winnie, marries and becomes a father, it seems as though his role might be more clear.  On the contrary, he retains the leisured lifestyle of before, merely taking the pram with him on his daily walks!

As always... no plot spoilers, but you need to know that Winnie, whilst a delightful wife, has confessed on their honeymoon to loving another man.  Their marriage then, is at best, a good friendship. Meanwhile Harry has stumbled into acknowledging that love comes in varied forms, and he surprises himself when he finds attraction and satisfaction in secret liaisons with Hector Browning.

And so the novel, on the one hand, is about exploration of identity in a society where homosexuality was a criminal offence, but it is more than that.  It is also the discovery of strength and resilience as Harry moves from the comforts of a married home, to the more communal existence with Winnie's family and then onto a stark and punishing year in Canada with the Jorgensens where he learns how to farm in a landscape far removed from England's green and pleasant lands. The rather soft, soppish character is formed by this landscape and energised by the physical work. He becomes a man with purpose and determination. This determination sees him leave the safety of the Jorgensens and create his own homestead on a plot of land in a place called Winter.

Interspersed with short chapters from a rehabilitation centre for those diagnosed with mental illness of some sort, Gale maintains the tension in the novel and the driving force of the plot.

The sum total is a loving, compassionate story where strength of character is the dominating force. Harry is transformed through circumstance, but also through exposure to great characters.  Jack, Winnie, Petra and Paul are all beautifully evoked and influence Harry in his journey into whom he becomes. And, somewhat delightfully, Gale manages to draw a protagonist who, though he develops in strength and character, remains a little naive and retains a little fragility.  In that, he represents us all.

And if I haven't done enough to convince you that I'm a bit of a fan... I'm going to let you see my signed copy of the book.  For those of you who know me well, you will be not at all surprised, that the book has been thoroughly read with absolutely no crease to the spine.  This book, my friends, is not for lending!

Monday, 12 October 2015

Post 19: The Dressmaker of Dachau by Mary Chamberlain

Author photo copyright Sean Gannon
I'm excited to write this post.  There is something about meeting a real live author in the flesh that helps to bring books alive. Those of you who have kept pace with my bookish exploits in the past couple of blogs will remember that Mary Chamberlain was one of the authors I listened to as part of the Henley Literary Festival. As I read the novel, I kept remembering Mary's quiet elegance and her evident enthusiasm for her first published fiction.  This, despite being a multi published writer of non-fiction (or re-created fiction as Michael Holroyd wanted it to be known)! She also sported a very nice scarf!

I asked her during the book signing (yes, I know, a signed book is so special!) whether she had found the ending satisfying to write.  I don't know about you. but I am often disappointed by the resolution in many novels and I wanted to find out how Mary Chamberlain had gone about this aspect of her writing.  She smiled and said that she didn't think I would be disappointed with the ending of The Dressmaker of Dachau and I have to say that she was absolutely right! But, as always, no spoilers here, so I'll dive into the main plot.

Ada Vaughan  is immediately likeable.  Working class, embarrassed by her humble family origins, she is determined to better herself.  She is a talented seamstress, and with youth on her side, she quickly becomes a mannequin for the "Hon. Mrs Buckley [who] traded under the name Madame Duchamps." Such style and pretension appealed to our protagonist, and she set out to learn all that she could about couture.  Dreaming of one day owning the House of Vaughan, Ada is determined and resolute in her efforts to realise her ambitions.
Those ambitions were thwarted somewhat by the outbreak of World War Two.  Finding herself trapped in Paris as war is declared, Ada is dependent on her beau, Stanilaus von Leiben.  But, as with all good yarns, it is soon apparent that he is not as noble and dependable as he should be.  In short, Ada finds herself ultimately incarcerated in Munich for the majority of the war, But, by a twist of fate, her dressmaking skills are fundamental in her staying alive.
The ending takes place back in London post-war.  The novel moves fast apace, from January 1939 to November 1947 covering London, Paris, Namur, Munich and London again. It is well written, the character of Ada is empathetic and I found myself "shushing" hubby several times as I had got to "an exciting bit!"
As with all books, I am sure this benefited from being read swiftly, but it is a storyline that demands attention.  I didn't want to leave Ada without my attention for too long!
So, a definite recommendation from me. It is an undemanding read, but character and plot are well devised and the whole book is well constructed and beautifully written.  That Mary Chamberlain is excited by words is evident in her vocabulary.
You know, I might just investigate the Royal Holloway Creative Writing appears Mary is a graduate from this course...

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Post 18 A Little Bit of Jeeves and Wooster and Quite a Bit about the Henley Literary Festival!

And a tiny bit of Jeeves and Wooster at that!  I have just completed Thank You Jeeves, my final compulsory read for my A Level students' coursework.  I know Jeeves is fondly regarded as a English institution, and he was created as the landed gentry were beginning a steady decline towards World War 1 and subsequent radical social change, and yet I cannot get excited about the series.  Yes, it is a light touch; candid humour that reveals relationship, but essentially, it is still dependent on slapstick. And I'm not a fan of slapstick!  Even You've Been Framed makes me wince rather than giggle.

So what of it?  Jeeves finds himself in a series of scrapes whilst staying in Chuffnell Regis.  He has moved out of the metropolis because his banjolele practice has been annoying fellow residents.  But he finds himself at the mercy of American J Washburn Stoker, his daughter Pauline and their friend Sir Roderick Glossop.
Because of the said banjolele, Jeeves has parted company with Wooster, leaving him to fend for himself with a temporary (and rather unhinged) valet, Brinkley. Lacking Jeeves, Wooster gets into considerable scrapes and misunderstandings, culminating in him sleeping in hedges, potting sheds and garages, provoking the local constabulary and risking his friendship with Chuffy. He is even imprisoned aboard a luxury yacht in an attempt to force him to marry Pauline Stoker.
All comes right in the end.  With a face blackened by boot polish so that he could escape the yacht disguised as a wandering minstrel, Wooster, with considerable help from intervention by Jeeves, manages to communicate so that all wronged parties are soothed and pacified.
A jolly set of scrapes, but a bit gung-ho for me!

Far more to my taste was the time spent at the Henley Literary Festival last weekend.  Regular readers will know that I mourned my session with Patrick Gale earlier in the week, missed due to illness, but I had recovered enough by Sunday to mosey on over to the final day of the festival. Lovely hubby decided he could face putting his literary toe in the water and he accompanied me to a talk by Mary Chamberlain about her novel The Dressmaker of Dachau and Michael Holroyd who was talking about his novel A Dog's Life.  This was a really civilised and interesting way to spend an hour, and needless to say, I left the session with two new books! Mary Chamberlain has spent many years in historical publishing, but this is her first novel.  Softly spoken, intelligent, articulate and bubbling with enthusiasm for her fictional foray, she was an inspiration.  Her reading of her own work was beautifully executed and I am anticipating a very good read. Michael Holyroyd was also entertaining, his wry humour permeated the session and is a key focus in his novel. Interesting is the story behind his fiction; his novel was written in the 1950's, but not published in the UK because his father objected to the comedy created from his own domestic situation.

But the highlight of the festival for me was the Dragonfly Tea Short Story award. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I was delighted to be shortlisted, and felt like a winner already....but that was nothing compared to being announced as the actual winner! Helen Lederer was presenting the prizes and as she described the winning entry, my knees started to wobble....  When my name popped up on the screen, I somehow managed to get up and walk across the stage to be greeted by Helen and receive my prize.  How I made it back to my seat without my jelly legs giving way, I'll never know!

A few days later, I can still barely believe it.  A tiny, almost unacknowledged dream has been given credence.  I can admit that I want to write fiction.  Now I just need to give it a go.....

And as a post script...I may have missed Patrick Gale, but I did manage to snaffle one of two remaining signed copies of his latest book, A Place Called Winter  from the cute, independent  The Bell Bookshop in Henley. Maybe I should use some of my winnings to see him at his next literary event!

Friday, 2 October 2015

Post Number 17: Ian McEwan Saturday and The Children Act; Kate Atkinson Life After Life

I'm back in the conservatory today when I should, in fact, be at work.  I am hugging a honey and lemon drink and trying not to cough as I type. I am not someone who misses work, and to have a week off is almost unprecedented.  So, four weeks into term and my proud boast of a iron constistution rendered immune to all viruses by 14 years in the same school, is now proved useless.

I also had to miss a much looked forward to event.  I had booked tickets for the Henley Literary Festival  to see one of my favourite authors, Patrick Gale.  It was to be a self indulgent day off. I had envisaged catching the train to Henley, taking a coffee whilst reading a novel, going to the first talk and then lunching by myself , still reading!  The pinnacle was to be the Patrick Gale session, but alas, not this year.  My lovely hubby, has however been a star.  Not of a naturally literary bent, he has agreed to come with me to a session on Sunday afternoon where we will hear from authors Mary Chamberlain and Michael Holroyd in conversation with Sue Cook. And from there we will have tea in the dragonfly tea tent before nipping off to the short story awards.  Here, I have a confession to make.  I am very excited.  I entered the competition but with no expectation at all.  To have heard I was long listed was hear I had been shortlisted from over 1000 entrants to the final 6 actually made me dance for joy in my kitchen!  I feel like a winner already as I had no thoughts of victory when I penned my tale, but nonetheless, I am terribly excited about attending the event on Sunday afternoon.

Now back to reading.  I have been remiss and find myself writing about 3 books at once, with a 4th about to be completed. This is because it is text transformation time at school.  My students have to read a novel and then transform an aspect of the story into a different genre from the original.  This is my favourite part of the course, as the students learn that they can indeed write well.  Much of English is about analysis, but the creative process is just as important to the development of these young people. And so it is, at this time of year, that I am armed with books of their choice, (nicely and subtly guided by me, so I get to work with some of my favourites) and read frantically, so that I can best help them with their drafting.

And so to Ian McEwan.  The Children Act is one of his shortest novels, but it is also one that tackles some of the most complex of moral and ethical areas.  Fiona, a family court judge is faced with a case whereby a Jehovah's Witness needs a blood transfusion.  The patient is nearly 18, but as he is not yet of age, Adam can be ruled by the court.  Fiona meets him and a bond is formed.  She recognises that he is nearly at the age of consent, but she, in his best interests, decides that although his faith is strong, she will overrule.  The consequences of this decision are far reaching.
Adam's subsequent idolatry of the judge is the key part of the plot.  The narration is third person, but from Fiona's perspective, so we only get a partial view into Adam's life post transfusion. Her reactions reveal much about her, but the  resolution is one from which she might never be able to fully recover.
This is all set against the background of a marriage that is wobbling. He husband needs more of her and she is exhausted.  Her work is consuming and important and she often has too little to give to him. As a result he is absent for the opening sections of the novel and Fiona makes some decisions that can be said to be out of character. As this resolves at the denouement, the reader is left more aware of the delicate balances in life, and the fragile axis around which we spin our daily lives.

I think this is one of McEwan's best, but I'll move onto Saturday, which deserves air time because it is so clever.  It reminds me of the time at university when I was the only student who ploughed the whole way through James Joyces' Ulysees.  Saturday, like the Joyce tome, is actually a stream of consciousness.  The improvement (dare I say it) on the earlier text, is that McEwan assembles Henry's thoughts so that they are comprehensible to the reader! The achievement is immense.  The whole plot takes place on an ordinary Saturday.  This day, like so many others, becomes extraordinary by circumstances.  McEwan allows his protagonist to dwell on current political questions as well as the mundane, such as buying fish for supper! We learn about his family through his thoughts, his relationship with his wife, (beautiful, a true depiction of good marriage) his
daughter, his son, his father-in-law and his aging mother. It was never going to be action packed, but it is a wonderfully written, beautiful reflection of a day and a man's thoughts in that day.  Cleverly woven through is the plot, whereby Henry, a neurosurgeon has an altercation over a minor car scrape with an aggressive and defensive fellow driver.  He recognises possible symptoms of motor neurone disease in the man's behaviour. His unlikely meeting with him that same evening is tense, dangerous and surprisingly credible! A good read which again highlights our humanity and our vulnerability in the modern world.

Oh dear, doing three at a time makes for a long post.  Well done if you're hanging in there! My final read is Kate Atkinson's Life after Life.  As with the other two, this is a re-read.  A note to all you bibliophiles out there; don't eschew a re-read.  There is always more to discover if the book is well written.

I re-read this with a view to reading the more recently published sequel.  I felt I couldn't do the sequel credit if I hadn't revisited the first novel.  It is stunning.  Again, it is very clever.  Atkinson follows a series of possibilities for a single life, and you are not entirely sure, which path Ursula takes of the many choices given.  At its crudest level, it is a choose your own adventure for adults! It is however, far more than this.  It is well written, the characters are convincing and the concept is original and well executed.
Ursula Todd is born at the beginning of the twentieth century to an affluent and jolly family at Todd's Corner.  In one scenario, she doesn't survive the birth.  In its alternative, she is loved and has a raucous, English carefree upbringing, but there is always darkness lurking.  In fact darkness is a symbol used throughout the book to denote death, "And darkness fell" is a repeated phrase to suggest a gentle end to the protagonist.  But she is always resurrected into the alternative plot line.  It sounds incredible, it sounds as though suspension of disbelief would be impossible, but that is the magic of the novel.  The reader is absorbed into all the storylines as Ursula works in the Blitz to recover bodies and casualties, as she endures an abusive marriage, as she enjoys a luxurious affair and as she takes tea with Eva Braun in Hitler's mountain retreat!  Incredible?  Still unbelievably no!  The protagonist is well constructed and evokes empathy.
Now I'm ready for the sequel which follows Teddy, her younger sibling whom we had thought of as missing presumed dead as a fighter pilot in WW2......

Next read is Jeeves and Wooster!
Thanks for sharing my blog.
Happy reading!