Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Post 45: In a Nutshell, one cracking good read and one that tried too hard.

Happy Christmas to all my readers.

Sheffield Cathedral
With just 11 days to go, I decided writing a blog was much better use of my time than hunting around for lords-a-leaping! And for the purists among you, (yes Richard, you), I realise that the twelve days of Christmas pertain to the period after Christmas Day; I am using poetic licence!

So forgoing the leaping lords hunt,what have I been up to?  A lot of miles have been covered as I Christmas marketed in Bath, carolled in Sheffield, shopped in Cirencester and pottered back to Oxford to collect Child 2 from his first term at uni.  I may also have attended a speed awareness course, just to sharpen my driving talents a little further!  Carolling has also been happening in our church and town hall and I anticipate a little mince pie and mulled wine in the weekend ahead as we share the festive spirit with Child one, her significant other and his parents...

My reading material, you may be relieved to know, has not been festive at all.  Aside from Mr Dickens, I find most Christmas literature to be a little trite.  We did however indulge in mince pie, gingerbread and mini Christmas cakes as the English Department gathered for their inaugural meeting of book club for nerds!  We had all read The Nutshell by Ian McEwan and there is absolutely nothing trite or seasonal about this novel.  I have a complex relationship with McEwan!  I seem to love or loathe his books, and this one is not one I will be re-reading in a hurry.

I loved the premise.  Narrated in utero, I eagerly anticipated the voice of a foetus, thinking that it gave great scope for originality and perspective. In the opening chapter, I was happy.  The baby had a bizarrely adult tone, but I was content to suspend disbelief when the rationale behind this was that he had gleaned his vocabulary and world views from various radio 4 programmes and podcasts that his mother was listening to.  I liked that. Quirky. It was in or around chapter 3 when it dawned on me that the mother was called Trudy and her lover (not the baby's father) was called Claude.  Could this be a pastiche of Hamlet?  My heart fell.  Surely not McEwan?  He doesn't need gimmicks...and this felt like a gimmick.

From that point on, I just wanted to finish it.  Not because it was a page turner, but because I had better things to do with my time, (now where are those 11 lords?!)  From a promising start, it descended into an unconvincing thriller where the baby's mother and Claude plot the perfect murder of John, (baby's Dad).  As in the Shakespeare play, Claude is odious.  His hold over Trudy seems to be merely sexual, and often exploitative.  Trudy has little resemblance to Hamlet's mother, and yet she appears weak and ineffective against Claude until the closing chapter.  In the same way, Gertrude only finds her voice when she declares she has been poisoned by the drink; perhaps in some way trying to warn her son of treachery afoot.

And whilst Hamlet is a typical Shakespearean tragedy with everyone ending up dead, The Nutshell contains some hope in its final pages.  Trudy's show of strength as she is about to give birth allows her to control Claude and prevent him from fleeing justice. 

I hated the connection to Hamlet; it felt forced and unconvincing.  I loathed the descriptions of sexual activity from a baby's perspective.  Whilst I could find humour in the adult voice and perspectives in the baby's narration, I couldn't find space in my heart for the total removal of his innocence.  Yes, you could argue that Hamlet lost his naviety when faced with the murder of his father, but that wasn't a strong enough justification for me.  You may like to read The Guardian's review of The Nutshell which explores the Hamlet connections in greater detail. 

And the rest of my book club nerds?  It was an overwhelming, "no".  Some enjoyed it more than others,but the narrative voice proved unconvincing to many; even with the idea that radio 4 has been his educator, there were many discrepancies that made his world view inconsistent.  And we all felt that some of the descriptions were repellent and gratuitous.  Would it have been published had it been written by an unknown author?  Possibly not.

So having given a book I didn't like so much air time, I am excited to give you a taster of a novel that I think deserves a place on your Christmas list.  I saw Robert Harris at the Henley Literary Festival in October where he spoke about his research visits to the Vatican in preparation for writing Conclave.

I was intrigued.  Harris is not a religious man; indeed he joked that he wasn't even a member of the Church of England club, having not been baptised as an infant, a birthright he felt every Englishman should be entitled to. He also said that having written the novel, he was more inclined to the agnostic position that a God who created the world, who oversees in some way, who is bigger than we are, must exist. 

And so to the novel.  It is set in a Conclave; the formal term for the group of Archbishops of the Catholic Church who meet to vote on who amongst them should be made the next Pope. Not an action novel then.  Most of the plot takes place in a locked room with 118 clerics.  No-one can enter or leave until votes have been pondered over, prayed about, cast, counted and checked. This has the makings of a dull read perhaps?  Maybe in the hands of a different author, but this was a gripping storyline.

The central character, Lomelli, is deeply human and I felt immediate empathy with him. He is aware of his own weaknesses and yet carries his responsibilities well in spite of this, (perhaps even because of this).  He confers with others and seeks to do the will of the Lord for the good of the Church, despite his own difficulty with prayer.  In his role as Archbishop in charge of the Conclave, he is the unwilling recipient of gossip and intrigue.  Harris times these gobbets perfectly to move the plot forward and add new dimensions to the story. His use of pragmatic suggestion is well crafted; the outcome of who is to be the next Pope is left ambiguous and uncertain until the final revelation.  

As always, I promise no spoilers, but there is a subplot which I outted before the final reveal.  Rather than spoil the story for me, it merely made me smug that I had seen this particular aspect of the story coming!

This was a good read.  Well written, it is popular fiction at its best and Harris deserves acclaim.  Its storyline was one that left me thinking that every moment I wasn't reading the novel was an inconvenience.  I wanted to talk about it and share my discoveries as I read them.  I have handed the book to my husband now, eager to discuss the story and see if he got the sub-plot!

Go on, ask Santa to add another book to your stocking.  Then you can tell me what you thought of it too!

Current read is The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald.  Enjoying it so far, and hopefully I'll be finished in the next couple of days. And nerdy book club?  We re-convene in February for a discussion on Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.  A brilliant book that I have already reviewed, but which I eagerly anticipate re-reading.  
Happy Christmas to you all. May your Christmas Stocking be bulging with books....and if Child 2 has got to the end of this entry, I am very happy for him to continue his quest to provide me with the best reads of the year!


Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Post 44: Five Books and A Quiet House

I began my last blog with apologies for bombarding you with posts...here, nearly two months later, my confession is of my laxity in sharing the joys of life and reading with you. So, with five books and eight weeks to fill you in on, this will be a whistle-stop tour.

I'll begin with Simon:Genius in my Basement, which is a biography by Alexander Masters (see June post for, Stuart: A Life Backwards). This details the story of Simon Phillips Norton, a child mathematical prodigy who achieved O and A Level Maths grades as a boy. With his genius there is social awkwardness and lack of conformity.  Despite his high IQ, he failed to gain the highest honours in his Cambridge degree because he had already completed the course and was bored by the time he had to take his exams.  His obsession with public transport is eccentric, and Masters calls his basement "a cave" in which only the timetables and ticket stubs have any sense of organisation.
Like Stuart, Masters builds a relationship with his subject, even accompanying him on holiday.  He seeks to understand the man, but also take the reader on a mathematical journey.  You cannot understand Simon, it seems, unless you have a grasp of maths.  This isn't any old maths either.  Masters uses cute triangles with expressions on their faces to hide a complexity of patterns that end up being used to illustrate groups.  These groups form the basis of his Monster theory and there ends my level of understanding...despite the triangles!
My problem with this book was fundamentally, the maths.  I wasn't interested enough in the quirky drawings and Masters grappling with his own intellect in order to comprehend Simon's. Like Stuart, he is on the edges of society, but for very different reasons. At the end of the book, I am uncertain as to whether he lacks the social skills necessary for relationship and conformity or whether he merely disregards such social conventions as unnecessary.  He eats what he wants when he wants it. He lives in a mess or not as he chooses.  He does maths as and when he feels an urge or an inspiration, rather like the romanticised view of a poet. He loves buses and trains.  A genius, but perhaps a lonely one, separated from the rest of us by his capacity for brilliance. Despite this, empathy was not fully achieved and this biography lacked the compelling interest gained from Stuart.

A few days after completing the Simon biography, we were university bound for child two, leaving hubby and I home-alone for the first time in almost 21 years! Whilst child two works out how to concentrate on essays whilst the college opposite has almost constant organ practice and bell ringing, we set to work on remembering what it was like to be just the two of us. And it turns out, that it isn't bad at all!  Food bill is down, crumbs on the carpet markedly reduced and half term is just an excuse for a day out!  We have managed an historic visit to St Albans, a trip to Sheffield to see child one, Oxford to check up on child two and the luxury of Celtic Manor for a weekend courtesy of hubby's work.  Good start!

So on with the reading.  I completed my students' coursework texts with the young adult novel, All The Bright Places  by Jennifer Niven and People, Places and Things, a play by Duncan Macmillan. The novel communicates well to its target audience about significant mental health issues.  Both central characters have reasons not to live.  Finch already has a name for himself as being violent and unpredictable,beset with depression that is always threatening to overwhelm him.  Violet, on the other hand is vulnerable because of grief.  Her sister has died in a car accident and she feels simultaneously responsible, (she encouraged them to go home on the route that killed her) and guilty for being the one to have survived the ordeal.  The book starts with her about to throw herself off a bell tower in their school, and Finch talking her down.  He protects her reputation by saying it was she who had saved him from the same fate.  I wasn't convinced by this opening. It was very American High School and the drama seemed fake.  I had no empathy with either character at this point and it took a huge measure of suspension of disbelief to continue reading. But I'm glad I did.  What unfolds is a tender story that gives both Finch and Violet a chance to express themselves and find themselves in one another.  Finch is significant in enabling Violet to cope with her grief, and she is significant in giving him the experience of a genuine relationship.
I enjoyed the story-telling in this book, because ultimately, I gained interest in the characters and was invested in what happened to them both.  I concede that it might be a "platform read", a vehicle to highlight an issue rather than weave a convincing narrative, but on the whole, for its target audience, it works.  And if it means young people talk more about grief and depression, then it is a good thing.

National Theatre 2016
Similarly, People, Places and Things could be seen as an issue-play.  It centres on Emma and her experience of addiction and rehab.  She is an adult, but I was very surprised to learn in the closing scene, just how old she is supposed to be.  My reading of the script had been of a teenager or early twenty-something.  Perhaps that says more about my preconceptions than the play!  Emma is only one of the monikers used in the drama, but it is the most consistent.  As you might expect,this play seeks to understand identity and reinvention of self, and naming conventions is one way the playwright achieves this. It is gritty and honest and has hope laced through despair. Did I enjoy it? Enjoy is probably the wrong verb choice for this text.  It is not designed to be comfortable. I appreciated it and again, if it helps start dialogues then it has served its purpose.

After such a hefty library of depression, suicide, addiction and displaced genius, I wanted to read something light.  I picked The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window and Disappeared. What can I say?  It looked light!  The front cover is quirky and the opening chapter is hilarious.  There is something endearing about a very old person escaping the clutches of care home ritual and claiming back his own life.  I loved this aspect of the story and I found the frankly ridiculous and unbelieveable accounts of his life on the run to be comedic and irreverent. The blase attitude to death is so irreverent that it doesn't shock or repel.  In fact these chapters were almost Fawlty Towers in their execution. But what of the rest of the story?  Masked
behind the centenarian's escape is a run-through of twentieth century world politics from the nuclear bomb to Russian defence, international spying and multiple wars.  He dines with American presidents, Swedish ministers, Russian leaders and Korean dicatators.  It is a very clever book.  Factual history is communicated through the interventions and exploitations of the seemingly incidental  Allan Karlsson whose expertise in explosives made him an asset to successive regimes and governments. Wildly implausible, it serves as a tool to convey the events of the time.  It also serves to demonstrate the ridiculousness of humanity and its political ducking and diving. Add a police chase, an elephant and a submarine and you have the bases covered.  Light?  Not really.  Too much fact and recognition of human stupidity and recklessness preclude comedy, but it is very clever indeed. I wonder what Allan Karlsson would make of Brexit and Trump?

Having felt slighted by a dust jacket that promised humour but left me with politics, I sought solace in Don Tillman.  The Rosie Effect is a sequel to The Rosie Project which I had enjoyed previously and this one was almost as good.  The premise is that Don is on the autistic spectrum but refuses to label himself as such. He acknowledges that he finds reading other people's emotions difficult and some social conventions leave him baffled. This leaves him high and dry with his wife Rosie, when he fails
to attend the ultrasound of their unborn child. This example is typical of the miscommunication between Rosie and Don that forms the basis of the plot.  And this is what disappointed me slightly. Rosie was perceptive and patient in the first novel.  She compensates for Don and he brings out the best in her.  In this novel, she seems to have forgotten how to communicate with him, and this is a fundamental flaw.  For the novel to be completely successful, Don and Rosie needed to be consistently portrayed.  The cliche of the woman losing herself in pregnancy is also a little overdone.  That said, I did enjoy the book.  I particularly liked Don's research in the playground and his contribution to the Lesbian Mother's Project. I also enjoyed his practical research as he attended the birth of a calf! Definitely light, but also with serious intent.  No-one can read these novels without acknowledging a little bit of themselves in Don...it also helps see beyond autistic spectrum labels and see the person behind them.

So there you have it. Reading reviews up to date, with a tiny bit of life thrown in.  My current read is Nutshell by Ian McEwan, prompted by the wild suggestion over break-time coffee that we start a nerdy bookclub consisting only of members of the English department!  Watch this space!

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Post 43: Reasons To Stay Alive, Matt Haig

I am sorry for doing this to you, writing two blog post in as many days.  I am also not sorry at all, because this book, which I utterly consumed in just two sittings, is brilliant.

This is another book selected by one of my students for her A Level coursework.  I am just sad that I am not her main supervisor!  Matt Haig has written frankly, honestly, openly and sensibly about depression. And please, don't be put off right here, right now.  Read to the end of the review, then read the book!

I have worked with people who have been depressed, I am friends with some who suffer and I have family who accept their battle with the black dog on an almost daily basis.  Perhaps even more real to me is the increase in depression in young people.  The pressure on students to be the best they can be is far greater than anything I experienced whilst at school or university.  They are told that failure is not an option and they are told what failure looks like.  Hence, they look to their teachers to give them the answers, the right answers, so that that they can be guaranteed success.  They risk nothing and fear everything because to take risks is to invite failure in.  And if they do fail, or achieve less than their targets, they are at risk of inviting in worthlessness, anxiety and depression.  In my mind, it is not coincidental that there are more children and young people self-harming and starving themselves than there has ever been before.  They are not weaker than we were, or  our parents before us, they are just exposed to more intense pressure much earlier.  

Paradoxically, this is one of my main reasons to stay in teaching.  I try to be a voice of reason over the clamour of a pressurised, target-ridden education system.  I teach A Level.  I want to share a love of words and of books.  I want to enthuse students and help them to reach their potential.  But I also want them to realise that life has many different paths and that failure to achieve A's is not failure at all.

Matt Haig's book, Reasons To Stay Alive is a personal story of his own battle with anxiety and depression.  He first "went under" at the age of 24.  This in itself, interested me.  He had succeeded. He was a good government statistic.  He had finished A levels and got a Masters Degree. He had a steady girlfriend.  He was working abroad.  He was living the life.
How to Live..forty pieces of advice...#20
 "Look at trees.  Be near trees. Plant trees. (Trees are great)

But that's the point.  We teach our young people to strive, but what if when they get there, the view from the top is no better than it was at the bottom?  We know that pressure continues, and it is exerted from all sides.  Be better. At everything.  Look younger.  Be thinner.  Buy the latest phone.  Achieve popularity.  Have followers in all aspects of social media.  Be promoted.  Own a house.  Pay for it. 

This extract really spoke to me about modern lifestyle and our wellbeing: "Human brains -in terms of cognition and emotion and consciousness - are essentially the same as they were at the time of Shakespeare or Jesus or Cleopatra or the Stone Age.  They are not evolving with the pace of change.  Neolithic humans never had to face emails or breaking news or pop-up ads or Iggy Azalea videos [I confess at this point to never having heard of the latter!] or a self-service checkout at a strip-lit Tesco Metro on a busy Saturday night.  Maybe instead of worrying about upgrading technology and slowly allowing ourselves to be cyborgs, we should have a little peek at how we could upgrade our ability to cope with all this change."

And no, I'm not naive enough to think that technology is the root of all evil, (I'm writing a blog, for goodness sake!), but it has made us multi-taskers.  Child two is a demon at it.  He can be seemingly absorbed in his phone but then beat us all at University Challenge and tell us breaking news that he has just read on twitter!  In a recent sermon, the very sensible Sam Allberry preached that in this modern world we are justifed by our own busy-ness.  We have lost the capacity to be still.  The Revd Sam advocated time spent with God, to listen, to read and to be.  Matt Haig is not propounding faith as a solution in his book, but he similarly recognises the need to breathe, the need to be idle, to pause and take stock.  We need to be as much (or even more perhaps) than we need to do.  That is counter-cultural.

Matt Haig writes very well indeed. More than anything I have read before, his description of depression and anxiety helped me to understand how it might feel to be so reduced by the illness.  It is also a profoundly positive book -  it offers hope and gives practical strategies.  It doesn't preach, but by the end we are left in no doubt that we all need each other.  We need to be kind.  We need to care. The opposite of depression and anxiety is not strength, but love.  Matt Haig received love from his girlfriend, (now wife) and his family.  He learnt to love himself again and through this book, he is showing hope and love to a myriad of readers who can benefit from his experience.

Let's talk to each other, listen to each other and ease one another's burdens.  Let's not say yes to the demands and pressures that are becoming so mainstream. Instead, let us grasp life, look about us and realise we are not determined by what we achieve, but by who we are.

Compelling, well written.  One of the best books I have had the privilege to immerse myself in.

I hope, Matt Haig, that this is a review that fits into one of your "Things that make (sometimes) make me feel better!"
  

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Post 42: The History Room and A Clockwork Orange

"Balance the bits about reading with bits about your life."  This was the wisdom of child one as I embarked on my blogging adventure.  This is all well and good in essence, but sometimes, my life is a tad dull!  Since my last post, I have returned to work after the summer break, seen child one off to her third year at Uni, had three fillings (ouch!) and had an Ofsted inspection. Enough said.

In the next blog, I am hoping to wax lyrical about the Henley Literary Festival as I have tickets to five events; but for those who have high hopes of my creative writing, I am sad to report that my entry for the short story competition this year, wasn't even longlisted... If you want to read last year's winning entry, however, click here!

Also coming up on the horizon is the big step of child two going off to Uni, leaving me and Mr M as empty nesters....watch this space!

My reading has been diverse this month. Beginning with one of my stash lovingly bought and brought home from Barter Books in Alnwick, I read The History Room by Eliza Graham.  Its front cover appealed to me: I could imagine sitting on the rocking chair looking out of the leaded windows to the well tended lawns and gardens beyond.  Its tag line, "The past is never past," whilst a little cliched, suggested an interesting story.

But I have to confess to being disappointed.

The plot is potentially rich and complex, but each strand was dealt with perfunctorily and too rapidly resolved.  Meredith,the central character has come to live and work at her father's private school in the aftermath of a rejection from her husband.  Horribly wounded in Afghanistan, Hugh cannot bear to be in her presence and he sends her away. This plot strand is in itself, worthy of detailed observation and retelling, but as with most of the novel, it never does more than skim the surface.  The book seems to acknowledge big human issues, but fails to fully explore any in sufficient depth to gain real reader response.

Meredith's father is a widow, but that doesn't stop his marriage also being central to the plot. Another woman from his past is made evident from the early chapters, and it is clear that one of the students may have a link to his boyhood as a young man in Czechoslavakia.  The history of this country and its invasion by Russians in 1968 is also cursorily dealt with; again, I felt a whole novel could be dedicated to this strand.
Perhaps most bizarre was the plot surrounding the appearance of a dead child in the history room. Quickly recognised as a prank in bad taste, the baby was actually a reborn doll.  I had never heard of these, but a quick search on the internet confirms that they do exist and can be given the features of a real child.  I find this creepy, but it served as a catalyst for the discoveries that are ultimately made about Meredith's father.
Frequent repetition of ideas...the doll, her husband, two characters Emily and Olivia and her father's past made this novel unchallenging.  I felt that I was being told the story rather than shown through the strands. This had potential but ultimately left me with no feelings of empathy for any of the characters. This one will find its back to a charity shop despite its lovely front cover!

My second September read couldn't have been more different, though I am not sure that I liked it any better! This one was read for one of my A Level students who is using A Clockwork Orange as his free choice text in a coursework comparison task. It is a modern classic, and one I feel that I should have read before now, so I welcomed the opportunity to fill a gap in my literary canon.  This book is, if nothing else, odd!  It is broadly speaking, a dystopian novel.  At its heart is an experimental penal reform programme that seeks to cure young criminals of their desire to re-offend.

The lead-up to the prison section is a brutal rendition of frequent drug-taking and subsequent violent binges.  Rapes, beatings and murder are recounted in detail which is sanitised only by the peculiar vocabulary invented by Anthony Burgess for this novel.  If you have never read the novel, here is an extract to show you what I mean: " Billyboy was something that made me want to sick just to viddy his fat grinning litso, and he always had this von of very stale oil." Exactly!  The neologisms are in fact, cleverly invented and it does serve two purposes; firstly it removes the extent of the violence from the sections of the novel where lawlessness is uppermost, but secondly it creates a sociolect for Alex and his young associates.  This sets them apart from the millicents (police) and the other adults they encounter.  I would recommend just reading the book without trying to translate the new words.  After a few chapters it becomes easier to understand through context rather than treating text as a foreign language.

My student wants to explore empathy in the novel.  This is interesting, especially as I have already slated the previous novel for not really enabling any full reader response.  I need to be able to immerse myself in a story to fully enjoy the experience, and I found A Clockwork Orange repellent rather than something I could really relate to.  And this isn't because of its genre.  Margaret Atwood has written many dystopian novels, some with extreme violence and criminality, but there is always a central character who evokes empathy.  Alex,the protagonist in the Burgess novel, failed to move me fully, though I can appreciate that he is, in his own way, a victim of the system.  When he is imprisoned and receiving a treatment that he is too naive to investigate or refuse, then some sympathy is created.  When he is released too, we see him struggle in a way that allows some empathetic response.  Indeed, I found his release the most interesting part of the novel.  Here Alex meets many of his former victims, but each meeting is unplanned and serendipitous.  They are also unlikely and require significant suspension of disbelief.  At this point in the novel, I thought that the purpose might have been to show how we are all trapped to re-live moments in our lives and never be allowed to change or fully move on.  But I don't think this is Burgess's ultimate message.  It seems to be something to do with growing up.  This is a coming of age story, a bildungsroman with violence guaranteed.  And it is this that is so chilling.  Burgess seems to accept that the young will always be reckless, will always be blind and deaf to reason and thus will need to go through rebellion to emerge, fully-formed on the other side. Whilst we can all accept there is some truth to this, I hope and pray that most young people do not feel the need for such bloodlust as is central to Alex's life.

And nobody comes out of the novel well.  The government is corrupt and controlling and those in opposition are equally so. The chaplain is a drunkard and Alex's parents are weak.  His friends are disloyal and compassion comes at a price. I found myself looking about me for some hope in this earthly existence!

I think that although the book was worth adding to my reading list, I won't be revisiting it in a hurry!

Now, the sun is shining and bulbs need planting.  I am going to look up from the depressing depiction of humanity and turn to the glories of nature.  Monty Don has it right when he says gardening is therapy!

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Post 41: Where I Become Uncharacteristically Sentimental:The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

I know that as a teacher, I am privileged to get six weeks off in the summer. I enjoy the opportunity to totally switch off from work; an opportunity that many folk never get once they start in employment. But boy,do those weeks whizz by....so much faster than a half term somehow!

My latest read was a great one to end the holidays. The Versions of Us is really three stories in one. Eva and Jim meet at Cambridge university at the age of 19 when she veers off the road on her bicycle when distracted by a dog.  This is the only absolute.  Everything that follows is a series of opportunities...opportunities missed, opportunities taken and the consequences of the decisions that each character makes at different stages.  The only other certainty is that their relationship is at the core of the novel, no matter which version we are reading.

At the heart of the novel is decision making.  We can all empathise with  those moments in life where a choice presents itself.  We can all wonder, "what if?" On the syllabus a few years ago was the Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken,(reproduced below).  It is a beautiful poem and its sentiment is played out fully in The Versions of Us. I wonder which decisions you would cite as the one that made all the difference to the life that you ended up living? I have a few.

One of the most determining moments occurred when I was a little younger than the protagonist, Eva. I was 16 and called to an interview for my local sixth form.  Not being academic, but being a solid, dependable worker who was good with people, my form tutor of five years had recommended that I leave school and find a job in a travel agent or something similar.  Not yet ready to work, I took her advice but decided to apply for a BTEC in Business to give me a head start for when I did apply for jobs.  But that interview changed my whole life.  The teacher who interviewed me was a stranger.  I can't even remember his name.  But I am eternally grateful to him.  He talked to me, saw that I had taken O- Level English early and done well and wouldn't let me leave the room until I had chosen three A-level subjects.  He discounted the advice from my form tutor and urged me to aim higher.

That moment catapulted me to A-Level English and a love of literature shared willingly by Mr Naylor and Mr Williams at Cirencester Deer Park Sixth Form. (I never thanked them enough, but they were both amazing teachers and opened up books for me in a way that has given me a lifetime of reading). They then encouraged me to go to university.  No-one in my family had done so before. It was at university that I met my husband and so the version of my life is written.

And so it is in this novel.  Eva and Jim connect.  They date, they stay together, they meet other partners, they remain acquaintances...all possible, indeed plausible.  Laura Barnett makes each version of Eva's life entirely convincing.Part of the fun of reading the book, is deciding which version you want to be "true." Even the ending has three versions.  

What I liked is that none of the versions is sugar coated. None of the lives lived is perfect.  The inherent flaws of humanity permeate each story, and so none of the narratives is without pain.

This book has a lighter style than other multiple narratives such as Life After Life. It is ambitious, beginning with Eva's birth and ending up with her in her seventies. The stories introduce us to a myriad of characters, with Eva's mother Miriam being the one that resonated the most with me. I enjoyed the novel.  It has, as you can probably tell, led me to reflect on life's turns and decisions made. In the cover photo, you can see the version of me in 1984 with my Granny.  My children still cannot comprehend that I was only 14 in that picture!  And it bears only a passing resemblance to the version of me that I am currently working on! The second photo is of me enjoying my last week of the school holidays with Child 1.  We were at the top of the O2 on a glorious day.  And speaking of roads less travelled....I had asked hubby first and then Child 2... both were non-plussed about climbing the outside of the London landmark...and so I turned to Child 1, who took a different decision and we had an amazing day out together.

Six weeks off is a pleasure and a privilege.  The roads I have travelled this summer have been many and I am blessed to have shared different ones with different people. Each person brings something different to my life and I am grateful.

But I am risking great sentiment on the back of this book review and  I must stop!  I'll leave you with Robert Frost's poem.  Perhaps you can share your life determining moments?  Or tell me which version of Laura Barnett's novel you wanted most to be "true."

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;        5
 
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,        10
 
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.        15
 
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

Friday, 19 August 2016

Post 40: Three Books and a Bookshop

Sis-in-law and me at Hengistbury Head
It's been over a month since my last posting, and I have been reading books in various locations around England.  It began with a short sojourn with a set of sibling-in-laws in Dorset, then we enjoyed a road trip to Alnwick in Northumberland via Lincoln and the Yorkshire Dales!  So my blog entry this time will give a brief account of the three novels I completed on my travels along with a view of my holiday photos!

I was very interested to read Anna Funder's novel, All That I Am.  Following her non-fiction book, Stasiland, I wanted to see how she handled a different genre.  The book is based on  research and many of the characters are real people, so perhaps this is more fact-tion than fiction!  Set in Germany at the time of Hitler's rise to power, this is an informative read.  I learnt a lot about the inter-war years and the rising tension provoked by the emergent dominance of Nazism. The main characters are proactive in resisting the pervasive ideology of the time.  The story is told by multiple narrators, weaving a complex plot from different perspectives. Ruth is the dominant voice, and her character is, at first, romantic and naive.  When circumstances change and she is forced to flee Germany with her husband,she recognises that not everyone can be trusted. 
If Ruth is the main voice then Dora is the tour-de-force of the novel.  Her determination and courage drive the plot.  Her personal story of love and political outrage influences the lives of many of the other characters. Her individual battle against the machinations of Nazi power are all the more extraordinary by being largely based on facts.
This is a story of complex politics, of foreign powers ignoring Hitler's growing threat and of personal loves, losses and betrayal.  
View from Malham's limestone pavement

My second read was vastly different and begun in the shadow of Lincoln cathedral, continued in the rolling green pastures of the Yorkshire Dales and completed in the bookish Northumbrian town of Alnwick.        


Lake House was an indulgent read. I love Kate Morton.  Her novels are well-constructed, well written and well plotted. This is not literary fiction, but a good, wholesome story.  So, in essence, it is a relaxing and undemanding novel which entertains without patronising the reader.  The story is set in Cornwall and is centred around an abandoned house.  The protagonist, Alice Edevane, is a detective who has been asked to remain off duty following leaks to the press about a case that she was involved in. To avoid being in London around the case, she stays with her Grandfather in Cornwall where she stumbles upon Loeanneth House and becomes interested in its past.  The story is well woven, though the ending ties up perhaps a little too neatly to be fully convincing, but this is not meant to be gritty realism.  It is a book to escape                                           with and enjoy.


And to round off my fortnight, I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. This was purchased whilst in Alnwick.  For those of you who have never visited the Northumbrian town, there is a slice of heaven in that place. Barter Books is a beautiful second hand bookshop which sells antiquarian and collectors' items and a  host of modern titles across the whole range of genre, in both fiction and non-fiction.  It is bliss.  Set in the old railway station, it is vast and evocative.  There is a coffee shop/cafe which sells ridiculously huge portions and serves the food in the old waiting rooms.  The decor is either original or sympathetic, and has quirky additions, such as the lamp shades being all top hats in the room which dedicates itself to their very own fat controller.  As well as this delightful place, Alnwick has several charity shops, some dedicated to books, and I confess to filling an entire bookshelf with my purchases on my return home!  

And so to The Reluctant Fundamentalist; back to more literary fiction, this indulged my penchant for quirky narrative voices. The protagonist communicates his whole story in first person and, in doing so, he constructs a one-sided conversation, building up a picture of the man to whom he is addressing his words. How did I know you were American? No, not by the colour of your skin...nor was it your dress that gave you away...Instead it was your bearing ..." And so it continues, creating an image of his listener whilst revealing his own history.  His past is interesting.  Raised in Lahore in Pakistan, Changez, was awarded a scholarship to study in Princeton.  Achieving well, he secures an excellent job and continues to outperform his peers. He meets Erica, a woman who fascinates him, colludes with him,encourages him, but at the same time remains unavailable to him. The political background to his American Dream is that of the twin towers and the subsequent tension and war on terror that resounded throughout the Middle East.  Of particular concern to Changez was the American silence as India sought to mobilise against Pakistan.  The story plays on words and ideas and ideologies.  It challenges stereotypes and makes readers look beyond the mainstream news for their facts.  The ending is ambiguous and needs interpretation, but is it also satisfying and complete.  This is a short novel which demands a response.

There...I think you are now up to date!  One final thing before I go...today is A Level results day and I want to say well done to any of my students who are still dedicated enough to read my blog!  I am proud of your achievements.  Number 2 child also got his results today and did very well indeed.  He is going to the city of dreaming spires. Hats off to him.  Hard work, commitment and a dash of genetics has made a scholar of him! Today I am allowed to be a little bit proud.  


Sunday, 10 July 2016

Post 39: A final round of non-fiction..with which I was equally fascinated and repelled...

My reading has been determined by the set texts provided for our new A Level course.  You will know that I am not a natural reader of non-fiction, but if you have been keeping up with my rapid book consumption of recent weeks, you will also know that I found both Jeanette Winterson's autobiography and Alexander Masters' biography of Stuart Shorter fascinating and compulsive.

Recent weeks have found me squeezing reading in around Child One's move from a faintly  disgusting student house...think sticky utensils, stray hairs and dust rolls, to a much more hygenic abode.  The only traces of former occupants seem to be the white tack grease stains on the walls and the need to repair bed bases!  We lifted, shunted and rearranged until order was reassembled. I left hopeful that, with its absence of certain boys who had failed to discover a use for washing-up liquid despite two years of independent living, that this house might even stay within the realms of acceptable cleanliness!  There are even two sinks in the kitchen...

Returning from the North of England, I put my efforts into completing Stasiland  by Anna Funder. Like, Stuart, A Life Backwards, this is written in the genre of literary non-fiction.  Whilst it endeavours to be a reliable, factual account of life behind the Berlin Wall and the effects on the people who lived in its shadow, it also has strands that run through the whole book, making it pleasingly cohesive. Anna Funder recounts stories of those affected by the Stasi and punctuates their retelling with pertinent political context and personal evaluation.


Whilst I didn't find this an easy read; I occasionally got bogged down in the politics when I really wanted to find out more about the people she interviewed, I did find it compelling.  I was 19 when the Berlin wall came down.  Before the news footage, I hadn't given the GDR any thought at all.  Yes, there was an iron curtain, yes there was communism, but that was all over there and nothing to do with me.  I was politically naive and unaware.

But the wall coming down had more impact on me than you might expect.  I had made a friend during my first year at university who was German and studying over here on a year's exchange.  She had come home with me for the holidays, and I was watching TV with her when the news of the breaching of the wall was reported. She was understandably emotional. For her whole life, Germany had been segregated into the Eastern German Democratic Republic (GDR)and the Western Federal Republic of Germany, (FDR). She seemed to me to be excited and terrified at the same time.  Her impressions of those who lived behind the wall was not wholly positive, that many were drunk and desperate; indeed Stasiland reinforces that alcohol consumption was higher than average in the Eastern sector. Her country was changing before her very eyes. Something that had seemed permanent had been torn down and some upheaval and readjustment would be necessary.

How timely that I was reading this as we have voted to tear down our connections with the EU.  My political views are moot at this point, and probably this is not the place to air them, but let's just say I watched the news reports on Friday 24th June with a sense of forboding that my country was changing before my very eyes and I had woken to a world out of kilter with my sense of rightness.

It is so true that politics affects lives.  In Stasiland,  Anna Funder tells of Miriam whose husband died in a Stasi police cell (not a spoiler, this comes at the end of chapter one and serves as a hook for the remainder of the book). It tells of Julia whose intelligence remained unrewarded as she was submitted to surveillance. It also tells of the men themselves, the members of the Stasi who watched, organised, arrested, imprisoned.Through the multiple voices, a picture is created of a place that was controlled, organised and restrictive.  Anna Funder is the author who is putting puzzle pieces together to enable the modern reader to understand the complexities of a place and its people.  Like the puzzle women in Nuremberg, Funder reconstructs lives led, lost and changed by experiences in the GDR.

This book shocked me.  The naive 19 year-old didn't have more than a passing interest in her new friend's reaction to the destruction of an edifice that had seemed impenetrable. That version of me was too absorbed in the safe minutiae of my own burgeoning independence to even begin to contemplate the changes that caused her to feel homesick and uneasy.  I dedicate my reading of this book to her.  I could have and indeed should have, felt more curiosity.

Stasiland  is well-constructed and empathetically written.  I learnt a lot.  I was also painfully aware of how much of the world's politics remain easier for us to ignore than engage with.  Maybe we just find it hard to cope in  the global village where problems and injustices seem so much bigger than we are. Books, both fiction and non-fiction, can give us a window on these things and make us reconsider our views, our preconceptions, our judgements and our responses.

If Stasiland  made me engage in an area which before I had known little of, The Examined Life had the absolute opposite effect.  This book, read as fast as I could because I wanted to stop as soon as possible, did absolutely nothing for me at all.  A series of case studies, it could, in theory, be comparable to Funder's text, but for me, they were in totally different leagues.

Funder educates her readers by drawing them into the life and politics of those who had lived through Nazi rule, communism and then Western capitalist democracy.  Some of those stories were sad, some were horrifying, some were of courage and others were of submission. Stephen Grosz's case studies were of patients who had been treated in his psychoanalysis clinic. The blurb states that they are "simple stories of encounter", and therein lay the problem for me. Each chapter is so short and each client so reduced that I failed to connect with any of their problems or to be convinced by any of the resolutions or conclusions reached by the therapist.

Whilst I write this I am aware that my inability to engage in the book and the psychoanalytical method may, in itself be interesting to a psychoanalyst! I do have very vivid dreams, so I could be interesting at a subconscious level I suppose....but I think I am too pragmatic for this approach. And when read next to Stasiland, the subject matter seems introspective, self-involved and possibly even a little indulgent.  But I am aware of my limits; I accept that I would be someone highly resistant to this sort of probing, and rather than condemn the practice, I will leave the book and the therapy to your reading. I know several of my students have found the text fascinating...but I think my colleague might have to supervise any coursework that arises from this one!

I am now going gratefully back to fiction.  Intrigued by Anna Funder's narrative voice, I am going to read a novel she has written.  Watch this space....


Thursday, 23 June 2016

Post 38. Stuart: A Life Backwards

Several unusual things have happened in my life recently.  Firstly, I have been gripped by non-fiction, secondly, I watched my sister-in-law abseil down a 100ft building and thirdly, I have shifted my exercise routine to involve real outdoor running.  I'm not sure which of these is the most surprising...

So, Sunday saw us cricking our necks skywards to watch out for the moment when we could positively identify sister-in-law's rear end balanced in a cradle above John Radcliffe Hospital. Celebrating her birthday in this unorthodox fashion was a testimony to her lively character, but also to the medical staff who battled to help her overcome cancer a few years ago.  A celebration of life indeed, and a celebration of those who help us to make the most of it.  She was marvellous.  There seemed to be nothing but celebration from the moment she trusted her harness and pushed off. Elegant, poised and enthusiastic.  If any of my readers would like to find out more, click on!

I must confess at this point, that as we left the house to watch the abseil, I asked hubby if it would be okay to bring my book with me.  With sister-in-law's descent scheduled between 4 and 5pm, I was expecting some "hanging around!" I also knew that lots of family would be there, and that reading, despite its many joys, is still essentially antisocial!  So, it was with some reluctance that I left the last 100 pages of Stuart: A Life Backwards on my kitchen side.

This book is a challenge to preconceptions about homelessness, drug addiction and all the social structures erected to try to "tackle" it.  Indeed, in a paraphrase of Stuart, we can't fix it because we can't possibly think like he does.  Those who sincerely want to help are still essentially outside the experiences that a) make people homeless and b) govern the thinking of the outdoor dweller.  Even the phrase outdoor dweller is middle class and pretentious, arising from my desire not to repeat the noun, homeless.

And it is partly this tension between biographer, Alexander Masters and his subject, Stuart Shorter that makes the book so compelling.  At times I loathed Masters and his insistence on deriving answers when Stuart made it clear that there were none.  His education and class are out of place in Stuart's world, and yet they make an unlikely and sincere friendship.  It is not a friendship of equals however, it is Stuart who is written as having the control.  He rejected Masters' first manuscript as "bollocks boring" and so Masters rewrote it.  Indeed, he rewrote it along the lines Stuart suggested.

So A Life Backwards is born.  Masters begins at the end and takes us back to Stuart's childhood. The "happy-go-lucky" boy was subsumed by the lad who yearned to escape his family home, sniff glue, take drugs and commit seemingly random acts of rage. At Stuart's prompting, Masters rearranged and edited his first draft so that it read like a thriller, working out what had murdered the happy child that pre-existed the "ex-homeless, ex-junkie, psychopath" that he became.

This biography gives context and insight into Stuart and into homelessness, government policies and sociology. The background of the unjust imprisonment of two directors of a day hostel creates much of this context, and this, in itself, is worthy of reading.  But it is Stuart and the incidents of his life that drive the narrative.  Borrowing from fiction, Masters hooks readers in the first 6 pages.  The shock at the end of chapter 1 compels you to keep reading.  The detail that you yearn for following this early revelation does not take place until the epilogue.

It is a journey well worth taking.  I must add here that the language in this book is ripe throughout, ranging from casual insertion of expletives to pepper everyday speech and rising (or descending) to shocking vernacular when detailing Stuart's rages.  Masters necessarily reconstructs Stuart.  He has to edit him in order to publish him.  The swearing is elemental to Stuart's idiolect.  If it had been erased then it wouldn't be possible to "hear" him.  Masters replicates a convincing voice, and one which Stuart only rarely objects to.

This is another aspect of the book that I loved.  Though a life backwards, it is also a life in the present. The story shifts from incidents in Stuart's life to the relationship between him and Masters.  I would hesitate to use the term friendship, but there is warmth and respect, and it is largely mutual.

Respect and sympathy for a psychopath are unexpected outcomes of this book.  It made me re-evaluate my judgments; indeed, it made me uncomfortably aware of them.  We judge without meaning to, we make assumptions when we have no right to do so.  Stuart: A life Backwards will break down preconceptions and challenge thinking.

This is a biography that will amuse you, upset you and shock you.  Stuart has a dark comedy and wit evident in his exchanges with Masters.  He lacks education but he is clearly intelligent.  He has integrity and morality. He can command an audience whose qualifications he has never even heard of.  He is complex, and he is astute enough to realise that there will never be any answers.

In the first chapter Masters informs us that Stuart can pinpoint the exact moment that he changed to become the man who wanders, who commits crime, who is addicted and is subject to violent rage, both against himself and others.  This book provides a detailed trail of how and why he changed. Well executed and deeply moving, this biography peels back a window on life that we mostly prefer to keep veiled.




Monday, 20 June 2016

Post 37: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

This is book 17 of 2016 and the third book completed in June.  For those eagle-eyed amongst you, yes I did indeed miscalculate in an earlier blog and was wildly out. My record in recent years is 34 in a year and so I am set to equal that...but my aim was 40, so I need to crack on. Just the 3.8 books per month as my target then...

Now I'm sure you'll agree that this book is pretty. The dust jacket rather enticed me as did the homely title.  Paris is also one of my favourite cities and the blurb noted that "a beautifully restored barge" moored on the banks of the Seine was the setting for this bookshop.  All rather seductive.  The premise: a bookseller who sells customers the books that they need, rather than those that they think they want, is also appealing.  Calling himself the "literary apothecary" Jean Perdu seeks to understand his customers and prescribe the novels that will speak to their souls.

All rather fanciful perhaps, but understandable to a bibliophile.  We know that novels are more than mere stories.  They have the power to make us laugh, to make us cry and to understand the world, and maybe ourselves a little better.

But I'm not sure that the book really succeeded in its aim.  The author writes in the Epilogue that the novel took three years to write and so I want to say that I loved it, but I didn't.  The storyline follows the bookseller after the reading of a letter left sealed for twenty years prompts him to make a spontaneous leap into the unknown.  For the first time in two decades, the barge is set free from its moorings and he goes on an adventure of self-discovery and healing.

Who hasn't imagined cutting the mooring ropes from their everyday lives once in a while? I can be found dreaming of turning away from suburbia and heading to the hills on a regular basis.  I peruse remote country areas on property websites and mentally move in to a farmhouse with garden, veg plot, chickens and, if I'm really lucky, a few sheep!  So the novel had all the ingredients for success...

And elements were effective.  There are odd lines here and there which strike a chord, (but none that stayed with me enough to quote...) and Nina George evokes the landscape as Perdu travels the canals from Paris to Provence. But it didn't work for me.

The plot is thin and the characters fail to convince.  Only Jean Perdu is in any way a rounded construction, and he is used as a vehicle for pop psychology. He goes on a literal journey in order to fulfil his metaphorical need to move on. Even his name is annoyingly obvious...perdu being the french for lost.  And there are random events, such as the drowning of a deer in the canal which seem to be symbolic but have no real cohesion with the rest of the book. Ditto a random tango class!

I could go on, but I won't.  I feel sad about writing a bad review, as I know that every book is a work of hours. In the interests of kindness however, I have included this link to a Guardian review that was wholeheartedly positive. Then you can make your own minds up!

So with apologies to the author, this is not on my recommend list....

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Post 36: The Buried Giant by Kasuo Ishiguro

I do like it when year 13 go on study leave.  I have much more time for reading! I also like the fact that the dreary weather of half term has been replaced (for a few days at least) with summer!  So I have been unashamedly making use of the decking by being decidedly lazy.  There is something about summertime and books that really encourages relaxation. So I have begun work on my summertime glow and read the latest book in record time.

Having really enjoyed the novel, Never Let Me Go, I was really looking forward to Ishiguro's latest  title, The Buried Giant. It is a very different experience!  This novel is part fable, part myth, part legend, part timeless comment on the human condition.

I have to confess at this point, that I am not a fable genre fan. When Sir Gawain made his first appearance as a character in the novel, I felt my toes curl with excruciating remembrance of my first year as an undergraduate when I had to read the text in its Middle English form.  Not my finest hour.

However, this book grew on me.  Ishiguro is a very talented writer and this book woos the reader.  It is beautifully lyrical, and I agree with the Evening Standard comment on the blurb, that it can be described as "even hypnotic" at times.  That said, this book benefits from a speedy read.  If I had taken too long over the novel, I think I may have got bored.  I set myself a 100 page a day target, and this was well rewarded.

The central characters are Axl and Beatrice.  They are Britons and they live in the uneasy times following the departure of the Romans from the country.  Their home is described rather like a warren tunnelled into the ground.  I couldn't help but visualise the teletubby house as I read the opening descriptions!  The novel opens with a description of their relationship.  It is a tender depiction of a long marriage, with Axl lovingly protective of his wife.  He looks at her as she is sleeping and yearns to share his thoughts, ideas and plans with her when she wakes.

Though elderly, they decide to undertake a journey that will lead them to their son.  The complication is one of remembrance. Described like a mist or a fog, there seems to be an external force that is robbing Axl and Beatrice of the ability to recall their past with any degree of certainty.  I first read this as a metaphor for old age and dementia, but it soon becomes apparent that they are not the only ones affected by it. They both have a conviction that they once had a son, but this conviction wavers in its strength as they travel.  Neither is confident about what happened to him or why he left their village, but they both recognise that now is the right time to seek him.

And so the novel becomes Odysseyian in its telling: it is all about the journey and who they meet on the way.  Key characters are Wistan, the Saxon warrior and his apprentice, Edwin.  They become travel companions and, despite the old age and slowness of Axl and his wife, Wistan is keen to keep them by his side.  The reason for this is not apparent until much later, but Wistan is particularly intrigued by Axl, thinking that his face stirs some long forgotten memory.

Sir Gawain is the other significant character on this journey.  Whilst Axl and Beatrice only seek their son, it is claimed that he, Wistan and Edwin are set out to slay the mighty she-dragon, Querig. This is Gawain's last order given to him by his Lord, King Arthur, and he paces the countryside in his armour, seeking to do his duty.

The journey, as any of its genre, is fraught with difficulty.  There are raids, pixies, hags and turbulent weather to deal with, and all the time, Beatrice grows more frail.  At its centre however, remains Axl and his wife.  Their love is tender, and this tenderness is conveyed more wholly, by their concern that they might be parted.  As they walk part of the journey alone and in single file, there is a continual refrain between them, '"Are you still there, Axl?" to which he would respond, "Still here, Princess." 
As they journey, there is sometimes a moment of clarity through the mists of forgetfulness and either one will recall an instant from their past.  It remains partially veiled until the end, and the reader is left to work out what might have happened to them and particularly, to their son.

The ending is poignant, and deserves much discussion.  I have committed to no spoilers in this blog and I am not going to deviate from this. But this one is difficult for me, because I really want to chat with you about the final chapter.  There is no doubting its tenderness but there is scope for interpretation.  If, once you have the read the novel for yourselves ( and I'm hoping some of you will have already done so) then please find me on twitter at @karenmartinread to let me know your thoughts.

This was a very satisfying read.  My recommendation is that you take it at full tilt, enjoy the language and allow yourself to be immersed in ancient times and ways.  The timelessness comes in the depiction of Axl and Beatrice and the nature of love.  The warrior and his apprentice also reveal a timelessness about the nature of revenge and need to conquer.

Absolutely not my genre of choice, but a magnificent novel all the same.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Post 35: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson




We are coming to the end of half term now and it's been a great week for reading and writing! With hubby away and the sun resolutely refusing to shine,even the garden wasn't tempting me away from my books.  So two complete, and a third one on the go already, it's really been quite blissful! I haven't been inside all the time though.  We had a lovely trip to Hughenden Manor and a very enjoyable ladies-who-lunch sojourn in Marlow with my niece.

Now, my distraction this week has been the quite late discovery of Susan Watson designs.  There is a shop in Marlow High Street, but it has always looked to me as though it is not a place for the likes of me.  It looks exclusive, as if you need an appointment to go in the front door.  And it is a front door. The whole shop is arranged like a house over three floors.  The dining and kitchen area is downstairs, with a study room on the next floor and bedrooms at the top.  It is the friendliest of establishments, and I truly do not know why I ever thought otherwise.  It was a my-friend-Liz who recommended it to me, and as my niece is shortly to be setting up home for the first time, it was a great place to dream.  Now here I must confess to becoming slightly obsessed with the nicest chair I have ever seen or sat in!  It is the perfect reading chair.  Wide enough to tuck your feet up, but narrow enough to sit properly, soft enough to be luxurious, but not so soft that you lose yourself it its folds. It is also expensive!  But I haven't spent my Henley Literary Festival money yet.....

A comfy chair may however, not be the best place to read Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?  This is an honest autobiography by Jeanette Winterson, probably still best known for her earliest work, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.  I also read Lighthousekeeping in 2014, and a mini review of that can be seen in blog post number 7!

It comes as quite a shock that the title of the book is a direct quote from Jeanette's mother.  Adopted as a baby, Jeanette's life with Mr and Mrs Winterson was not traditional.  It was not comfortable. Indeed, it was not even remotely kind.  The book opens with another one of her Mother gobbets, uttered to the child Jeanette in times of anger, "The Devil led us to the wrong crib."  I cannot imagine what such rejection must have felt like, but Winterson makes a very good fist of conveying her emotional response.She is a talented communicator and writes with a dark humour that goes some way to making the story of her childhood more bearable.

Feisty from the outset, Jeanette learnt deceit out of necessity.  Banned from reading or owning books other than the bible, she became a prolific reader by stealth.  Her interest in language was ironically nurtured by her mother who read from the bible every day, "it was intimate and impressive all at the same time." And it is here that the book's compulsion is evident.  There is a tension throughout the retelling of her childhood, a tension that exists between love and hate, between acceptance and rejection, between profit and loss.  And it is the loss that resounds.  Her mother is lost.  She clings to a strict and loveless version of faith that emphasises judgement and loses compassion along the way. She abhors her own body and cannot be intimate even with her own husband, prefering to stay up all night rather than share his bed. It is clear that Mrs Winterson, always referred to with this moniker of detachment ,was broken.  It is equally clear that "Dad",  though more affectionately referenced, was weak, and did little or nothing to reach out to his daughter.

Jeanette was born in 1960, and was brought up in industrial Accrington.  The scenes depicted could be as easily 1940 as 1960; modernity hadn't reached the two up, two down factory housing.  Toilets were outside, milk was delivered, supermarkets were a vision for the future and central heating a luxury nobody could afford. Jeanette had learnt to lay and light a fire by the age of 5; a necessity as her Mother would be in bed, getting in once her father had got out and up for his early shift at the power station shovelling coal. Jeanette was often on the doorstep herself, locked out by her mother for some misdemeanour.  All night.  That or the coal hole.

Language rescued Jeanette, lifted her from the mundane, the cruel, the extraordinary which was her ordinary. Bible reading from the 1611 King James version meant that complexity never daunted her. Indeed, she makes a very good point about modern attitudes to language and learning.  In the north in the 1960's many men went to evening classes at Working men's Institutes.  Shakespeare was often on the curriculum.  The language was the same as the bible that was the bedrock for many working class families, "It was a useful continuity, destroyed by well-meaning, well-educated types who didn't think of the consequences for the wider culture to have modern bibles with the language stripped out."
And so in her coal hole or on the doorstep, Jeanette made up stories, narratives that took her outside of the cold and transported her to a bigger world.

Hyprocritically, Mrs Winterson sent Jeanette to the library to get her weekly dose of crime novels. Apparently these bypassed the "trouble with books is that you never know what's in them until it's too late." Jeanette was not allowed to read fiction, but she became adept at lingering at the library and soon began to use wages from her market job to buy paperback books.  She hid them under a mattress and ultimately worked her way through English Literature A-Z in Accrington Public Library.

And she hid much of what was important, because to communicate affection or its lack was impossible. She had to find all her resources internally, committing prose and poetry to memory, escaping in her head before she was able to escape for good.

And escape came too early.  It was forced on her by a mother who would not tolerate a daughter who found pleasure with other girls.  She was forced out of her home, with no money, no resources, no alternative, at the age of 16. Rescue came first in the form of a friend's mini and then from a teacher who offered her food and lodging.

And so the book goes on, a gripping tale made more so because it is real. Mrs Winterson was awful, but it was because of her that Jeanette Winterson is who she is. Amidst the anger, there is guilt. Amidst both there is a  tangible thread of love.  It is not affectionate, but it is fierce. "I do know, really know, that Mrs W gave me what she could- it was a dark gift, but not a useless one."The second half of the book explores adulthood, relationships, breakdown and recovery.  It also tells more of the adoptive story and a search for the truth.

The childhood section was compelling in its paucity of love and affection.  The search in adulthood had me burning the midnight oil to see how things have turned out for Jeanette.  And anyone who knows me will realise that anything past 11pm (or maybe earlier if we're honest) struggles to hold my eyelids open!

My overwhelming response is a need to applaud.  Jeanette Winterson is strong, resourceful, independent and capable of learning.  Her lifetime has been learning that loss and love are equally strong forces.  Her adulthood has been a trial of learning.  To love and be loved.

We all have a story.  Hers is worth reading and admiring. And it is unfinished.  The final lines of the autobiography read with searing honesty, "I have no idea what happens next."

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Post 34: Different Class by Joanne Harris...a novel in a class of its own!

This post finds me at a moment of calm in the teaching calendar.  I have waved goodbye to year 13; always a mix of sadness and excitement as they move from the shelter of school stability and stand on the cusp of independence.  I now leave it up to them and the examiners of AQA as to their fates! In the meantime, year 12 remain on study leave and I am pausing before they return to embark on their year 13 courses in a couple of weeks.  In that pause, I have completed Joanne Harris's new novel, Different Class. Set in St Oswald's School, it was an apt choice for this time of year.

It also happens to be a novel of excellence.  The characters are well conceived and the plot receives my absolute admiration.  In a lifetime of writing, I would never be able to hold as many strands in my head as Joanne Harris succeeds in weaving. So good was the run-up to the climax that I stopped reading!  I didn't want to gulp it down whole, but I needed to savour the resolution.  Thus, armed with my own resolve to walk regularly no matter what the weather, I left my venerable signed hard-back copy on the arm of the chair and strode out in the pouring rain. And it was wet...

And it was worth the wait.  Pencil in hand, I read slowly, absorbing the novel's conclusion. If I've tempted you already, you can skip the detail and buy a copy! Or better still, pop a copy in an electronic basket and then come back to me as I fill you in on a little more detail.  That should have you eagerly anticipating that rather delightful thud as your new book lands on the mat.

 As Straitley, an erstwhile narrator of Gentleman and Players takes central stage in Different Class, he reflects on being a "tweed jacket" who is increasingly resistant to the changes engineered in St Oswald's school by the "suits". Whilst not yet approaching retirement, despite the messages sent out by my (premature) silver hair, I had great sympathy with Roy Straitley.  Where he sees professional common sense, someone else sees a necessity for a policy.  Where he sees a student, someone else sees a statistic that is ripe for improvement. It is a sad fact that education is so target driven.  It is a sad fact that so many of our students feel that success is only measured in A grades.  It stifles expression and creates huge fear of any form of failure.  Resilience is needed, but through creativity and discovery as opposed to the more bullish growth-mindset thinking that can create its own sense of failure.

But I have digressed!  I'm sure Mr Straitley and I would have a lot to discuss over one of those ring- stained coffee mugs in an ubiquitous staff room, but he has a much more exciting story to tell.

I confessed in my last entry that Joanne Harris had managed to hoodwink me with Gentlemen and Players.  In Different Class, I was completely absorbed and totally wrong-footed.  As with the former novel, this one has multiple narrators.  The first is Mr Straitley and the second is an anonymous diary writer who addresses his missives "Dear Mousey."  By the eighth and final part of the novel, I had given in and was forced to re-read some of the opening chapters.  My revered signed copy of the novel now has some graphite scribblings in the back so that I could unpack just who was who and who was doing what to whom and why!  Fortunately, Roy Straitley remained as clueless as I was until the end, a technique which works really well.  I never felt cheated by the writer, but I was certainly challenged as the plot twisted and unfolded more strands than an origami molecule. And yes, I've made a link to the origami, in case you need some distraction!

Let me try and give you a plot outline.  Straitley is resigned to the interference of a new super head and his crisis team, sent in to sort out St Oswald's following the poor peformance of the school.  The new Headmaster is Johnny Harrington, a past pupil of Straitley's, for whom Roy holds no affectionate memories.  The chronology of the book switches between the present (2005) to Harrington's time in school (1981). This cleverly intertwines multiple story lines.  From the rescue of the out-moded honours board in which Straitley is comically involved, to the exposition of the unlikely friendship between Harrington, David Spikeley and Charlie Nutter as they form a bond forged by the fact that they are new boys in an established class, the plot contains comedy, pathos, tragedy and unpredictability.

Harry Clarke is another significant figure in this novel, pulling together all the other characters and plot strands.  A teacher in 1981, he enjoyed a friendly relationship with Straitley and was popular with the boys.  His teaching methods were unorthodox, and his encouragement to get the students to call him Harry and to join him during break times to listen to music made him an anomaly when juxtaposed with the more traditional Devine, Straitley and Scoones.  It also rings alarm bells in the modern reader where stories of historic child and sexual exploitation abound in the news.  And so the accusations begin.  Naturally amenable, Clarke is the students' choice for confidential disclosure.  His own sexuality however makes him vulnerable and his position becomes untenable.  He never has his own narrative voice, and so we learn of his story bit by bit, with the truth not fully exposed until the closing chapters.

Likewise, we learn of the alliances between Harrington, Spikeley and Nutter as the novel progresses. With no spoilers at all, I will urge readers to pay attention to all nicknames in this book.  Exactly who are Goldie, Poodle, Ziggy, Piggy and Mousey? I'll leave that there, and leave you to enjoy the book in its rich fullness.

Set against the main background of St Oswald's, to which all the characters have a connection, there are also other settings that impact the story.  The church attended by Harrington's parents is intolerant and propagates prejudice with a hell-fire condemnation for anyone who thinks differently.  This is a subtle but significant strand, which influences the three boys and continues to resound in the lives of the modern pupils in Straitley's form of 2005. The clay pits are the other significant setting, drawing boys in to rebel from conformity.  The fact that they are out-of-bounds makes them menacing but intriguing. The dumped rubbish, magazines, burnt out cars and shopping trolleys form the detritus of modern life, but equally they provide a playground for boys seeking to break free of adult supervision. Attracting lads from Sunnybank (the local comprehensive) as well as the privileged St Oswald's, the lure of the pits crosses the class divide.

Other elements also cross this invisible line, creating relationships and alliances that help to make the story more complex and more satisfying.

Despite my need to resort to sifting backwards and paying more attention to facts and ideas that I had initially dismissed, or perhaps even because I needed my pencil notes at the end, I must endorse this novel.  It is, as Val McDermid is quoted as saying on the dust jacket, "A masterpiece of misdirection."

Though rightly popular, Joanne Harris needs more critical acclaim.  She is worthy of reading, but she is also worthy of studying.  I know that even as I shut the novel this afternoon and reflected on what I had just read, the book will benefit from a re-read.  Next time, I'll dive in with my eyes open, but I think she will still surprise me.

And if any of A level students happen to be reading this blog, (well done, I'm proud of you!), then this is certainly a good place to start a quest into good quality contemporary fiction. Joanne Harris is not a predictable novelist.  Each book stands alone, and you are never quite sure what she will publish next.  All part of the joyful anticipation of being a reader...