Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Post 74: When One Door Closes, Another Opens Elsewhere

The weather has been fantastic!  I hope all those of you who live in Britain have been managing to grab a few hours of outdoor reading in this "season between seasons." (I borrowed that very apt quote from the poet, Eavan Boland as she describes a visit to Ireland in May) And those of you in the rest of the world, firstly can I say I am amazed that so many of you have stumbled upon this blog and a heartfelt thank you for reading me so regularly. And if we're alluding to statistics, I am excited to say that my 20,000 hits is possible with this post, so a thank you in advance to all of you who make it worthwhile for me to sit and pen my musings on books.

The last couple of weeks has seen me complete Sebastian Faulks, Where My Heart Used To Beat and Mohsin Hamid's Exit West. It has also seen me say "Goodbye" to my last set of year 13 at my school as I exit north to take up an MA in Warwick next term. This is a weird time for me.  I have been at my current school for 16 years (about time you did something else then, I hear you say!) and so this year's leavers' afternoon tea in my classroom was poignant.  Teaching is a privilege.  It has allowed me to access young minds and open them to explore their world through books and writing.  It has given me the joy of being trusted by young people and immense satisfaction as I see students discover what they can do. There is no doubt, that this particular door closing is not without sadness or trepidation, but it is the right time for me to move on and try something new.  I am very excited about this and my current students, both those who are leaving and those I am handing over to new teachers, have been wonderfully supportive of my mid-life crisis that has lead me back to university!

Mohsin Hamid's, Exit West is, as you might expect, another example of his highly intelligent writing. His novels are short and perfectly formed. Shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker, this book explores immigration and globalisation. As the title suggests, the thrust of the story involves two characters who flee their native land and culture to seek a safer life in the West. Their country is never named, but the description in the opening lines of "a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war," sets the context for their city to become a place where mortars are dropped and street skirmishes, patrols and curfews become the norm. Though unnamed, the calls to pray denote a Muslim community and the "crumbling facade that dated back to the colonial era" shows a history of invasion and cultural influence from the West.

But the story is not a simple one of a war-torn former colony.  Hamid has created a panorama of people on the move from all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons.  He has snapshots into the lives of people all over the world, and so in the opening chapter, he switches from the central story to a diversion in Australia where a woman sleeps whilst a man seems to emerge from her wardrobe and then drop out into the night.

And here is where Hamid has employed a surreal concept.  Instead of a lengthy narrative of treacherous crossings, border patrols, people smuggled in the backs of lorries and the undersides of trains, he establishes a metaphor of doors opening all over the world.  Doors that lead somewhere to the West but their destination is never known.  Using the well-known Narnia imagery they symbolise migration, not from a wardrobe to a land of snow, but from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa to the West.  Their very existence tells of the desperation of those who flee from wars and politics that are not of their own making.  The people who find the doors, who pay for access to them, never know what they will find on the other side. This simple metaphor conveys complexity of human experience and emotion; it shows how so many people are forced to step away from everything known to embark on something totally unknown.

And so it is with the protagonists Nadia and Saeed. Already estranged from her parents by her modern decision to live independently, alone and without practising any faith, Nadia meets Saeed in an evening class on corporate branding.  He lives with his parents and conforms to expectations of filial obedience and religious observance. Conflict changes everything however, and when electricity is rationed, mobile signals turned off and the internet shut down, modern life is impossible.  Windows are boarded and taped in case of mortar attack and people live in their boxes without contact with the outside world.  This isolation is much of what led Nadia first to live with Saeed and his father and then to flee, to seek out and find a door. 

The rest of the novel details Nadia's and Saeed's experiences of London and then America, but cleverly snapshots the lives of other immigrants pushing open other doors throughout the world. It is a story of humanity, of prejudice but also of hope. It has elements of realism, surrealism and dystopia. It shows welcome and fear. It shows bridges being built and isolationism being enforced.

Hamid writes in a way that demands an intelligent and thoughtful response.  You are never going to close the final pages and think "that was a nice book!" It is much more than a story; he uses the power of  a story to provoke thought about contemporary issues. My overwhelming response to Exit West is one of hope for humanity globally, that we can reach beyond the current politics and overcome them with fellow feeling.  Such feeling might stem from compassion but needs to become rooted in equality. 

If you hadn't already gathered,this definitely makes my recommended reading list for 2018.  As does Where My Heart Used to Beat. In order to keep this post to a reasonable length, I'll give you a taster for Sebastian Faulks' novel which I'll review more fully very soon.  This is a reflective novel that looks back over a life of loving, of war and of loss.  It explores our very humanity and has a twist at the end that made me want to pick it up and start it all over again.  Indeed, I am very tempted to do that before my next entry...

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Post 73: 3 Books and 5 Farm Machines

Well, would you believe it? A bank holiday weekend when the sun shone every day! That posed a dilemma for me: sunshine equals blissful relaxing reading in the garden, but it also gives rise to lots of other summery possibilities...and this time round, I spurned my books!

Bit of buttercream practice
Day 1 of the long weekend saw me and hubby mooching around the lovely town of Marlow and scouting for designer bargains in the charity shops.  We had lunch in the garden and then got all DIY and mixed concrete to repair our back step.  On Sunday we dined al fresco with a Thai meal at church and then met up with Child 1 plus fiance to discuss weddingy things.  It was on Monday where things became a bit more alternative.

Long-suffering my wistful desires to have married a farmer called Robert and ride tractors, hubby bought me A Day In The Country tractor driving experience.  He realised that he could do nothing about desires 1 or 2, but 3 was solvable! So it was that we found ourselves in Aynho on the Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire border, where I could put my farm skills to the test.

A spot of cultivating!
We arrived to find I was one of three would-be farmers; perhaps predictably, I was the only girl! Sticking to polite convention, the gents decided I should go first on a vintage tractor with trailer around a slalom course. No pressure there then.  Pride and adrenalin surged as I was determined not to fulfil the stereotype of a female driver and, I'm pleased to say, I was pretty sharp!  That wasn't the case on the bigger, butch JCB and giant tractor...the boys were better than me at the computer-style boom operations and they were soooo much better than me at reverse parking with a 14ft trailer, (those who have laughed whilst I try to reverse park my Polo will not be surprised that that bit was my most challenging moment!) But all in all, I wasn't bad.  So, if anyone has a farm and a need for a very nifty vintage tractor driver who can cultivate in a straight line, then message me!

And all this excitement has taken me away from the printed page, but I have read three books since the last post.  The first was the appropriately agriculturally-titled, How To Measure A Cow by Margaret Forster.  And I'm pleased to say that the book did deliver on its aim.  I now know that to measure a bovine I need to go from the shoulder to the second joint of the tail, multiply that length by 5 and divide by 21 to get the weight! I'm sure this is a very useful skill to someone!

The storyline was, I have to admit, disappointing.  The main premise is that Tara, now "Sarah Scott" is living with her new identity in a town in the north of England in order to start afresh following a long spell in prison. Despite auguring well, the characterisation and plot never fully deliver.  Sarah is an invention which Tara Fraser finds hard to maintain. Through encounters with an elderly neighbour and three former friends, all of whom are stereotypes and fail to become fully rounded characters, Tara's former life is revealed.  By the ending (no spoilers, though I wouldn't give this book your time), I was nonplussed and totally unconvinced by her past history or present situation. One that despite its engaging title, will be bypassing my shelves and going straight to the charity shop.

My second read was also less than inspiring, but its author has so many accolades I think I must be missing something.  It is a novella by Philip Roth called Goodbye Columbus. Motivated by the A-Level reading list for this module, I am attempting to lead by example and encourage my students to read beyond the set texts. I think however, that they can miss this one out!  It is a coming of age novel, centred on a summer of sexual awakening in America in the 1950's or thereabout.  Young lovers meet around an outdoor pool and end up making a clandestine visit to a doctor to get the Dutch Cap. Their couplings are eager and furtive but have a temporary air about them. Indeed it is all rather symbolic...even their names don't seem to matter, other than that they denote them as Jewish Americans.  Neither Neil nor Brenda ever become fully developed characters. It was always more about the experience than the romance, and the young couple cannot survive once they are found out. And perhaps it is this that means I don't like the book.  Maybe I am more of a romantic than I give myself credit for. 

So by this time I'm getting desperate for a book where the characters have some heart.  I turned to Emma Donoghue's, The Wonder.  I liked The Room and I admit, I was totally attracted to the very beautiful cover (though the lettering on the spine did rub off on my thumb!).  This is set in Ireland in the late nineteenth century, with Lib Wright, the protagonist, being a nurse who had served and trained with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. This assignment is very different however, and allows the author to probe the religious beliefs and superstitions that cloak Catholic Ireland at the time.  She is employed to watch Anna, an eleven-year-old girl who, so her parents, doctor and priest purport, has not eaten for the four months since her birthday.  Lib recognised the physiological impossibility of this and sets out to disprove the stories of manna and miracles.

She discovers however, that Irish beliefs run deep in this central part of the country, long scarred by English colonialism and the famine roads that leaded to nowhere other than humiliation and death. Breaking the fast and saving Anna's life become a mission that Lib had not expected.  As the story unfolds the book becomes more than a competition between rationality and superstition, between science and faith, as the child's past holds more conflicts and contradictions than Anna can cope with.

The plot line works well.  It is a gentle story where the setting and premise do not change.  It is ostensibly a story about a nurse who tries to persuade a child to eat.  Much of the novel takes place in the dark mud walls of Anna's bedroom.  And yet it is compelling. It centres around understanding people and making sense of their actions. And so I finally got to read a book this month where character is at its heart.  It is an easy, well-constructed read. Some of the minor characters are less convincing, (William Byrne is a bit disappointing, but he serves well as a plot device), but it is a book I would recommend.  It will be added to my bookshelves!

My next read is Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks. I am a bit of a Faulks fan, so my expectations are high. I am also very fond of the book already as it is a signed copy that has survived a night in the airing cupboard following a bedside table spilt water incident!

As always,thanks for reading. Please feel free to share and comment!