Monday, 30 October 2017

Post 63: Reading for the Absolute Pleasure of it

Isn't it such a delight when you get a run of excellent reads?  Looking back over my reading lists of the past few years, there are often barren patches where all the novels seem to be entertaining enough, but not sufficiently demanding or thrilling to ever warrant a re-read.  Not so at the moment, and I am relishing the joy of being enveloped in good writing.

One that definitely warrants a revisit is The Help.  Published in 2009 and made into a film in 2011, this is a debut novel by Kathryn Stockett. I first encountered this as an audio-book a few years ago and was prompted to re-read it by one of my students. It is a wonderful combination of good writing, good plot and open, empathetic characterisation.  Set in Jackson, Mississippi, the book explores the social and cultural milieu of a small town whose defining characteristic is its separation between black and white residents.

The most significant character is Aibileen, a black house-maid who agrees to help Skeeter first with a domestic advice column in a newspaper and then on a much more risky publication.  She begins to meet Skeeter in secret, telling the truth about what it was like to work for middle class white families. She recruits other maids, who because of their faith in Aibileen and their disgust at the treatment of Yule Mae by Hilly Holbrook, risked their livelihoods and their lives to speak openly about the discrimination suffered every day.

The book serves, as all good fiction should, to illuminate truth.  Though a novel, the segregation is factual, the way the domestic maids were treated is representative and the oppression of a whole sector of society is honestly depicted.  This honesty comes in part from the sections narrated by Skeeter.  A reasonable, educated white woman, the book details her gradual awakening to a system in which she had been unintentionally complicit.  Born to wealthy white parents who owned a cotton plantation, she had been brought up by Constantine her maid, and was used to having black workers toiling her father's land.  Through her story, we see real love and affection between black maids and white children.  This storyline is echoed in Aibileen's relationship with Mae Mobley.

The plot is narrated in turn by Skeeter, Aibileen and Aibileen's friend, Minnie.  Each has a function.  The two maids are foils for one another.  Aibileen is steady and measured whilst Minnie is impetuous and impulsive.  Minnie has lost countless jobs because she has failed to keep quiet when mistreated by the white ladies.  Suspicious of all of them, she took a great deal of persuading to trust Skeeter Phelan and her project.

The novel is the story of the publication of a book, from idea to draft to its reading audience.  It tells the stories of maids in the deep South and their employers.  It tells the story of a young white woman who wakes up to who she is and how she came to be that person.  It is a story of a nation begging for change.  Set in the period of civil rights, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, this novel sits at an uncomfortable period of American history whose echoes resonate as sadly all too relevant today.

Despite its difficult content this is a heart-warming story where empathy is given to all three central characters. There is comedy, pathos, compassion and an overarching positive tone that encourages us to believe that humanity, at its best will prevail over the shame and degradation of humanity at its very worst.

This links nicely with my next read, I Am, I Am, I Am. The title comes from a line in Sylvia Plath's autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar.  The repetitious phrase reflects the sound, beat and insistence of her heart, a rhythm which reinforces her life rather than her desire to escape it.  Maggie O'Farrell's memoir however, is not one of suicidal agony, rather it is a celebration of life.  This is something of a paradox when you consider that the whole book is about encounters with death! Each chapter details a life-threatening moment in O'Farrell's own life.  And it is seventeen chapters long.  At the North Cornwall Literary Festival, she said that near-death experiences were not unusual, that we would all have stories to tell.  I am not so sure. She has certainly experienced more than most of us. And whilst some can be deemed as "trivial", such as her mother narrowly avoiding shutting a young Maggie's head in the boot of a car or as "commonplace", such as swimming out too far and finding yourself tired and out of your depth (admittedly made more tense by the fact that her young non-swimming son was on her shoulders at the time), others are dramatic and terrifying.

Most of us can be thankful that our vehicles were not targeted by bandits, machetes were not held to our necks or that our rambles in the countryside were not interrupted by psychopaths.

Think this is already one of my
most treasured possessions!
But horrific (and disturbingly gripping) though these tales were, it is the ones of searing vulnerability that evoke the most response.  The chapter on miscarriage is open and begs us to consider the question why we keep our early pregnancies under wraps, "I've never understood the blanket secrecy you're supposed to apply to early pregnancy. Certainly I've never felt the need to broadcast the news far and wide, but it seems to me that pregnancy at any stage is significant.."  Why is it that we choose to suffer alone when we grieve the loss of an embryo?  This is indeed one of society's final taboos, and one which we need to speak out about.  It doesn't need to be sentimentalised with social media campaigns, but rather we need to be free to speak about such pain if we so choose.  In the same way that we can speak about any loss, this one needs to be aired.

The chapter about her own childhood illness is also unspeakably honest.  She learns that she is the "little girl dying in there" by listening to an over-loud conversation outside her hospital door. Her subsequent recovery and the ineptitude of the authorities, "where [they]agreed to move my classroom downstairs but not the lunch room...[so] I ate a lot of packed lunches in the downstairs toilets, with the door locked, my feet tucked up so that no one could locate me." makes me cry out for the child she once was.

Maggie reading at the
 North Cornwall Lit Fest
And this is Maggie O'Farrell.  There are few authors who can capture and take possession of what it means to be human.  There are few authors who can create characters with such depth and empathy.  She brings these skills to her memoir. It is not told in chronological order but each chapter has a connection to the one before.  Her childhood encephalitis precedes the chapter on her own daughter's constant fight to cling to this world, from her conception to her daily struggles with multiple allergies.  It is written in the same unequivocal tone as the rest of the book, and yet a mother's fears are transparent through it all.  Honest and raw in places, Maggie O'Farrell stated that this is the chapter that had the most attention, the most care,the most revisions.  And it is the chapter that she cannot read at festivals and readings because she cannot do so without tears.

It is a book of life rather than a book of death.  It is about valuing it, holding onto it and squeezing it for all it is worth.

And speaking of which, this is my half-term charity shop haul.  I am going to be reading for all I am worth, for as long as I am able...

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Post 62: On Meeting Your Heroes

I had just finished book 27 of the year and was about to go to France when I published my last blog.  I'm now reading book 36, so it has clearly been far too long between posts. I blame arriving back from holiday on Sunday evening and then being catapulted into a much busier role at work on the Monday! I've just about recovered my sense of equilibrium, so hopefully I'll be writing more regularly again.

Headline news...I HAVE MET PATRICK GALE AND MAGGIE O FARRELL!!! More detail below the McEwan review!

Patrick interviewing Maggie at the North Cornwall LitFest

Now I realise that you won't want to read reviews of 8 titles, so I'll give you the list and then take my pick: 
          Black Dogs, Ian McEwan
          Heidi, Johanna Spyri (we were in the Alps...I couldn't help myself!)
          All That I Am, Anna Funder
          Notes From an Exhibition, Patrick Gale
          1984, George Orwell
          The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid
          Zoo Station: A Memoir by Christiane F
The final one was a novel in draft form by a friend of mine, so I'm not going to reveal anything about that until it reaches its publication phase.

Those of you who are loyal readers with a good memory might be noting that I have read several of these titles before.  That is the joy and irritation of teaching A Level!  It is coursework time and students can choose a text to accompany a set book. I make sure that I read or re-read all the choices so that I can be at my most useful with advice.  It is a joy because a good book just keeps on giving and an irritation because there are so many other titles out there and a lifetime isn't long enough!
I admit however, that my re-reading of The Reluctant Fundamentalist was a revelation.  I thought it was a good book the first time round, but the second read was even better.  I made connections I hadn't done initially and the writing is supremely clever. Anyone interested in a post 9/11 society should read this book.  It challenges stereotypes, preconceptions and attitudes.  It intrigues and appalls in equal measure, and it is written in a dramatic monologue but with the twists and turns of a thriller.  An important piece of literature and definitely on my list of must-reads.

Finished whilst sitting on a balcony over Lake Annecy, Black Dogs by Ian McEwan was another book with a political dimension. Bought for us by our children as part of our 25th wedding anniversary celebration, (the book was published in 1992), the novel features a fearful encounter in France which changes the course of the life of the protagonist. Remember where I was reading this! I can assure you however, that no black dogs plagued us on any of our Alpine walks, and so far, my life hasn't changed because of our stay there!

The narrator of this novel is Jeremy and he is reconstructing the lives of his parents-in-law, Bernard and June Tremain.  Having promised June that he would write her memoir, she spent much of the last months of her life impressing upon him the significance of the encounter with two dogs on a french mountain pass.
The incident becomes a source of contention, with Bernard dismissing it as no more than a frightening moment made worse by local gossip and lore. June however, felt as though she had come face-to-face with, even wrestled with a physical manifestation of evil.
The book operates on two levels.  Firstly it is a love story, a broken one, where passion and differences are never fully accommodated. Concurrently, it is an existential exploration, examining why we are here.  A modern novel, it draws on a lifetime which experienced the Second World War and its political ramifications.  It addresses the appeal of communism in the wake of the rise of Nazi Germany and shows how war affected individual lives.
It could be considered bleak, "The evil I am talking about lives in us all. It takes hold of an individual...and everyone is surprised by the depth of hatred within himself." but at the heart of the book there is hope.  This is carried entirely by the contentment of the narrator - Jeremy and his wife are happy - they have their family and know depth of love and security in each other. I liked him and his honest desire to reflect the truth about his in-laws and respect their histories.
A relatively short novel, it is complex in its themes and well-constructed.

Me and Maggie O'Farrell
Before I go, I must share my joy at having completed a crazy weekend trip from Maidenhead to St Endellion for the North Cornwall Literary Festival. Seeing that my favourite authors Patrick Gale and Maggie O'Farrell (yes, I know, I could hardly contain my excitement either!) were appearing on the same stage meant that I really had no choice but to fill my car with petrol and head southwest. I had checked whether it was possible by train....when I said this to a local attendee in the damp marquee, she just laughed!
Needless to say, with my equally crazy sister-in-law accompanying me, we jumped out of bed at 6.15 to make sure we were there in good time.  As we neared the village venue, the mist rolled in and the rain poured. I parked somewhat nervously in the already muddy field and just prayed we could drive out again a few hours later (all was well, "just keep low revs on the grass and you'll be fine!")
At this point,I must point out that I have been to Henley Lit Fest and Oxford Lit Fest before...for my sis-in-law, this was her first one. When we arrived at a church hall for lunch, served by lovely ladies in the kitchen, I did wonder what I might have brought her to.  This was not the Bodleian Library or the Kenton Theatre! The venues were two very soggy marquees reached by a path of matting to prevent an utter quagmire.  Oxford it was not.  But it was so good; the local feel to it (we were the only incomers that we found) made it a very intimate event.  It felt as though Patrick Gale (he's the artistic director) had invited a few of his awesome author pals down for the weekend and we just happened to be there too!
Hehe!  This is me and Patrick!
Blessed by waiting in the rain for Matt Haig's talk, we secured front row seats which we able to hold for James Naughtie and Maggie and Patrick, (first name terms you notice! I wish!) All the talks were good. Matt Haig, whose book Reasons to Stay Alive  is reviewed in another blog post, was incredibly entertaining. He is funny, warm and open to the audience. I am really looking forward to reading his latest novel How to Stop Time. James Naughtie was interesting as he read from his spy thriller Paris  Spring; he too made us laugh by refering to the infamous Jeremy Hunt slip-of-the-tongue made whilst he was on the Today programme. I was slightly nervous for the O'Farrell/Gale finale....should you meet your heroes?
I needn't have worried.  They were personable and intelligent, witty and warm.  Maggie spoke honestly about the move to memoir from fiction
Me and Matt Haig
and spoke of her family with deep affection. Then the damp got into the lights and they sat in disco red and green for a while, then in semi-darkness and then back to bright again.  And it was this almost parochial feel to it that made it intimate.  I don't think a photo opportunity like this would be afforded by the bigger festivals, and I certainly don't think a chat with the authors and their publicists would be possible.
So I reflect on my North Cornwall book festival with a fuzzy warmth. It was an excellent weekend.  We came home with new books and a sense of privilege at being welcomed by a very friendly team to an "exclusive" inclusive readers experience. Arts Council: please take note.