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."