Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Post 51: Tree Surgery for Beginners meets Five Rivers on a Wooded Plain!

It's been an indulgent couple of weeks as I've settled on our new "snuggle" chair to read the two books chosen by Child 2 for my birthday last month. His track record is good and he had unearthed a Patrick Gale I'd not yet come across and a new author he thought I might like...
And the snuggle chair?  Well, the idea behind it is that it is very cosy for two...or alternatively, it provides ample space to curl up by yourself and read for hours at a time!  The cat has also decided it is the best chair in the house for stretch room; we can sometimes be found vying for available space!

Since I last wrote, hubby and I have signed up for a 26-mile charity walk for Macmillan Nurses.  This takes place in July, so expect to get regular updates!  We are now the proud owners of bottle green t-shirts, and training has begun. We did have long-legged Child 2 as our pace-maker on a speedy 7.5-miler this weekend, so maybe we need to employ him to accompany us...for the first few miles at least. The astute amongst you will have realised that it is marathon distance, so we really need to pace it if we're going to complete the challenge in a day. We're aiming for about 9 hours, but we'll see.  Thanks to those who have kicked off the fundraising.  If you feel moved to spare a few coins, find us on  justgiving.com/fundraising/KarenBriCotswoldChallenge.

Now onto life's readathon.  Don't you find, whenever you are in a bookshop - whether it be somewhere huge like Foyles, a boutique like London Review of Books, an Oxfam charity shop or an independent that somehow survives despite Amazon - that you are struck by how many titles there are, and you know that your lifetime isn't going to be long enough.  There is so much to learn, so many stories to uncover and authors to discover.

My latest read is by a favourite of mine, Patrick Gale. The title is appealing in itself, and I found myself wondering if I might acquire a few woodland skills as I opened the pages of Tree Surgery for Beginners! It begins by setting the context of the town of Barrowcester and the protagonist Lawrence Frost, who has grown up there.  I have to admit at this point, that I wasn't as gripped by this novel as I have been with all other Gales.  It is indeed an earlier publication and if you haven't yet sampled any of his writing, I wouldn't start with this one.  The recent A Place Called Winter is significantly more accomplished.  I began with Notes from an Exhibition, and that is a splendid read.

Lawrence Frost discovers in the first chapter that his wife and daughter have disappeared.  It transpires that he may well be the cause of their departure as he recalls drunkenness, shouting and jealousy over a work colleague.  The story then takes many twists and turns, moving away from Barrowcester via a bridge cruise that takes in Miami,the Virgin Islands and California. If this geographical sweep isn't broad enough, there is also an incident with a tiger, the curiosity of an androgynous cabaret singer, a murder, a tragedy and long-lost relatives.  I'll concede that the plot isn't the strong point of the book.  But it does have a heart.  You can see the embryonic writer here, the Patrick Gale who will eventually guide you through people and their lives and emotions with total empathy.  There is hope in this novel, a hope that no matter what befalls us as a human race, we can love each other through it, we can help each other to heal.  It is not trite; the human angle is its strongest strand, but the story arc that supports its purpose is not comparable with the sophistication of his later novels.

From an early Gale to the debut novel of Barney Norris.  Cutting his storytelling teeth with a string of very highly acclaimed plays, this first novel is accomplished.  The premise is romantic; set in Salisbury where five rivers meet on a wooded plain, there is a strong sense that we are a part of a much bigger history. In its foreword chapter, The Burning Arrow of the Spire, Norris details how generations of settlers have been drawn to this corner of Wiltshire to live their lives. This big backdrop remains at the heart of the novel as he begins to tell the stories of five individuals whose lives merge in this place. But the novel is cleverer than that.  I was duped into thinking that I would have five separate narratives whose stories would conjoin at a given point, but it is more sophisticated; whilst there is a central device of a car accident, not all the characters are directly involved. More, it serves as a catalyst where we are privileged to be allowed access to their lives at a given point.


The first character is Rita the flower-seller, whose colourful language and existence serve as an antithesis to the romanticised depiction of Salisbury given in the preceding chapter. Her life seems to be over as she faces up to who she is and what she has done.  There is a swift change in tempo and writing style as Sam is introduced.  He is a teenager who is remembering the scared boy he had been, whilst the reader can still see the fear that lies just beneath the veneer of foetal maturity. His story is about him facing up to an unpleasant reality, and one where no-one has the words to explain or express themselves. In the middle of his story the car crash occurs.  He witnesses it and moves on.

Another character is a beautifully constructed elderly man in his eighties who has just lost his wife. The portrayal of loss and old age is finely drawn and written to evoke a natural empathy.  There is Liam, a drifter and a drop-out who is just sitting it out in his home town without really understanding why he is there or what he might do next.  And there is Alison, the army wife who lives in fear of the phone ringing or uniformed personnel turning up at her door to tell her of her husband's demise at the hands of insurgents.

The novel reads like a series of short stories with an integral thread. The centrality of the story is that we live for a mere whisper of a moment before we recede into history. The setting evokes such considerations, as Norris makes us aware of the number of people who have gone before: from the ancient settlers, to the druids, to the early christian populations and now the secular mass of modern commuters.  The cathedral is simultaneously a metaphor for the safe and the temporal.  Beneath its shadow people live their lives, occasionally coming in for succour, but mostly ignoring it.

It ends with natural imagery that fits perfectly with the vast backdrop of the plain and its five rivers;
"there is a grace to cupping your hands and catching your life as it pours past you, holding it close for just a few moments before..new water, new time flows over..."

This is a novel that beats to natural rhythm of place and human experience.  The narratives are all singular and the changes in tone, pace and style make this a stimulating read. It is quiet and unprepossessing, and yet, as I turned the book closed, I said to hubby with a sigh that it was a novel that had got my heart.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Post 50 where I would expect a fanfare...

As I write this 50th post, I have just finished watching episode 1 of the 50th series of Gardener's World, my parents are just about to enter the 50th year of their marriage and I am not yet near 50!! It would have been nice and neat if I was on the 50th book of the year, but that really is pie in the sky!  Come on, it's only March! I'm proud of my 9 books so far...my best start to a reading year ever. But I was looking through Litsy, a kind of Instagram for bibliophiles yesterday ( you can follow me there too, under the name karenmartinreads) when someone posted a photo of their 100th read of 2017...already!   There is a serious question here and I am going to take my 50th entry to ruminate a little on reading and perhaps even a little on life in general! Are books something that should be consumed and ticked off, or is there more to the whole process of reading?

I'm the first to recognise that if a book is read too slowly, even if it has the potential to become a favourite, it is likely to wither and die in your hands.  Some momentum is necessary.  a chapter a night isn't enough to fully engage with plot and character.  But as I was driving along recently, I caught a snippet of a radio 4 programme where an author said that he hated the idea of his readers reading too quickly. He pointed out that a novel took him a year to write and he didn't want it gobbled up in one sitting! Assessment of your reading enthusiasm should not be defined by the number of books consumed.  And it is that word consumed that holds the key.  Consumed has connotations of speed without pleasure. Even a chocolate bar, if consumed, goes down barely hitting the sides and we need another one, rather than savouring and enjoying the single treat. Maybe we all just need to slow down. With everything. Look around, breathe, take pleasure in things.

Snowdrops catch your breath at Welford
Modernity has got a bit lost.  We have forgotten to take pleasure. To experience rather than consume.

I work part-time in a full-time world and I see the ravages of overwork etched on my colleagues.  I like to think that I do my job well, that I care about the students that I teach, but I care as much about their experience of being in my classroom, under my direction, as I do about their end results.  I think I have this luxury because I can come up for air.

I do have stalwart colleagues though, ones who doggedly make time to read for pleasure amidst the clamour of increased targets in an under-resourced world. And reading does refresh you.  It can form escapism, fire new interests and hone empathy.  We all need kindness in a consuming world.

And so what have we been reading since the last blog?  My Head of Department was so evangelical about Guilia Enders' book, Gut, that she had all of us reading the biology of the stomach and wondering about our own eating habits, our toilet habits and the connections between belly and brain. It is very well written, not bogged down with science, but not pop-science only (in my humble, very non-scientific opinion!) I was most fascinated by the connections between our psychology and our gut; this is ground breaking research which is being studied in various facets of medical exploration.

Despite the fact that it was a good read, non-fiction is not my first love, so I'll direct you to The Independent Review of the book which discusses the bestselling qualities of a book that breaks the "poo taboo!"

More collective reading has been completed for the departmental book club. We have a resident youngster in the department who, I believe, joined the teaching staff in order to make me feel old.  I taught him when he was in year 9 and he now has the audacity to be 25 or thereabouts and walks around as a living reminder that I have been in this game too long! He is also our resident DNF in the book club. (Did Not Finish, for those of you unfamiliar with bookish acronyms!) So, we challenged him to choose the next read.  He did so with much trepidation, not wanting to foist a title on us that we would loathe....trepidation that was not without grounds!

When All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy was mooted, we found an online version of
chapter one to whet our appetites.  Reading aloud at the end of our last meeting, it was universally acknowledged to be a powerful start to a novel.  The protagonist is seeing his dead Grandfather for the first time and the repetition of "That was not sleeping" was more evocative a reaction to death than anything I have ever read. It communicated shock, sadness and natural human objection to the process which robs us of our loved ones.  We were all hooked.

Now I have to confess that it was downhill from here for me. Having tried to read The Road some years ago, I was wary of McCarthy's style.  He makes the reader work very hard, refusing, except in rare instances, to include narrative tags to his dialogue, so it is sometimes very difficult to work out who is speaking.  He is kind enough to set out his dialogue on separate lines, as per standard grammatical structure but he doesn't deign to use speech marks.  This winds me up!  I am not a total purist when it comes to Standard English writing; I acknowledge that deviation from the standard can be creative, but this I found totally annoying.  I should not be reading a story and be distracted by its graphology.

That aside, the novel itself has received high critical acclaim.  Time for a link to a positive review for comparison.  Do read it...there are no spoilers and it is a beautiful response to an evocative title.  But for me, there wasn't enough empathy built with any of the characters.  The premise of the novel is based on two young men leaving their home in Texas to go to Mexico.  They are on horseback and their love of horses and horsemanship drives their relationship, and indeed much of the plot.  They meet up with another traveller on horseback who seeks to fall in with them.  John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins reluctantly accept this addition to their adventure, and it is Blevins, the new recruit, who causes a series of disasters which form the backbone of the plot.

The mastery of description is undisputed.  I just thought there was too much of it.  Despite my earlier thoughts that a novel needs to be experienced rather than consumed, I found myself the master of skim reading.  I was using the Kindle, and was more interested in the hours left to complete than the story itself.  I found myself setting consumable goals...can I get reading time down by 30 minutes? So it became a challenge to complete rather than a pleasure to read.

But I have completed it. I remain unmoved by the characters and the events.  The Aunt at the hacienda seemed to be included only to move the plot forward and enable a potted history of the Mexican revolution.  She could have been interesting, but she wasn't.  The love affair that Cole experiences is a rite of passage, but despite its profound affects on him, held no heart for me.  At the climax of the novel they find themselves in prison and reunited with Blevin. It is dark and corrupt and was the most meaningful part of the tale for me. It was also the most character driven part, with more dialogue to balance the descriptive narrative voice, but I still wasn't moved to care very much about the characters or their fate.

Maybe cowboy stories are for boys....(brace myself for gender bias onslaught), maybe I missed something profound.  But if you're looking for effective description, profound relationships and exploration of itinerant life in the Americas,then go to Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. This, despite its bumbled interpretations by generations of O-Level and GCSE students, retains its brilliance.  For me, characters have to be convincing and have to be empathised with, otherwise a novel remains flat.

So apologies to Tom for my failure to engage with his book club choice, but I would also like to add at this point, that just because a book fails to make your must-read list, there is still no excuse for a DNF!

As always, feel free to comment, write and suggest.
Buds...take the time to appreciate the
world around us. Photo courtesy of
my Dad xx

Thankyou for reading.  It is so delightful to hear from my readers, and it is very heartwarming that some of you are using karemartinreads as a place to go to decide what to read next.

Reading has heart.  It is good for you.  Take the time and be refreshed.  This is not a guilty pleasure.