Friday, 12 October 2018

Post 80: New Beginnings

I like a nice round number, and this being my eightieth post seems to me to be something worth liking!  When I set out to write a reading blog, I never expected so many of you to log on and read my musings. And they would be pretty pointless without you, so thank you very much for being enthusiastic and loyal.

Outside the entrance to
Central Campus, Warwick.
My most recent read has been Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing.  This was a gift from two former students at the completion of their A-Level course.  They are now both at university for the first time and I really hope they are enjoying their first taste of independence and academic rigour!

I'm experiencing a second bite at that particular cherry!  After years of fiddling about with creative writing and entering a few competitions, I have taken the plunge to return to study.  Last week saw me at my first seminar since 1991!  And yes, I am older than most of the other postgrads, but I am not the oldest! I am daunted but I am not yet a quivering wreck (though hubby may dispute that by making reference to last Friday when I decided that I couldn't possibly meet all the deadlines for this term)!

This new venture may impact my blog.  Much of my reading from now until March will be dictated by the course.  Because of self-plagiarism (who knew that was even possible!) I probably won't review all the titles that I read for the Warwick Writing Masters Programme.  I will list them because I know lots of you will be interested, but I can't risk reviewing them when I may need to use some of the content in my analytical essays!

Discovering that selfies
behind the sign make it read
the right way round!
That said, I will endeavour to maintain personal reading. My to-be-read shelf is groaning under the weight of my reading ambitions, and a recent visit to Cheltenham Literary Festival with my cousin-in-law found me jotting at least eight titles down on my Christmas list! I have informed child 2 of the existence of this list already!

Cheltenham was fun.  Its arenas are however, much bigger than those in Oxford, Henley or North Cornwall Lit Fests.  I think I prefer the more intimate festivals where your authorial heroes are within arm's reach and a conversation afterwards is more than possible.  The marquee in which we heard Kate Atkinson and Mary Beard speak was huge!  I had to remind myself that this was happening here and now as I needed to watch the big screen in order to see the interviews properly. That said, it was well done and in a beautiful setting.  The company was great and I got to tick another one of my favourites off my I-Spy-An-Author list.  I wish I had Kate Atkinson's creativity...she confessed that she always has a waiting room in her brain for books yet to be written...and they all have titles!

And to another very talented writer...

Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2016 and Baileys Women's Prize in 2017, Madeleine Thien's novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an epic that details modern Chinese history from the late 1940s to the twenty-first century, but don't let that put you off!  Its central characters are totally convincing and it is easy to feel empathy for them.  Written across three generations, the main character is Sparrow who bridges the elders, who are his parents and uncle and aunt, and the youth, represented by his niece Zhuli and his daughter Ai-ming.

I enjoyed the book because it opened a country and period of history that I knew very little about.  It gave me context and personal detail of the 1989 Tienanamen Square massacre and shamed me that as a 19-year-old student in Southampton, I watched the news with only a passing interest.  I was 19, only one year older than Ai-ming.  I should have been interested in what students were protesting about, but I was too self-absorbed and didn’t understand what political manipulation or oppression was.  The beauty of fiction is that it can awaken the political and moral consciences of readers who were previously naive.  I have certainly benefited from works set in the American South, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Post-colonial works really do have the capacity to widen our world views.

It is Ai-ming who opens the novel.  She arrives in Canada from China in the wake of Tienanmen Square, finding refuge in a foreign country.  She goes on to America by the end of chapter 4 and  thereafter is silence.  Much of the novel builds the background to her life but one of the key draws of the book is the desire to know what happens to Ai-ming.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing tells of a strong story-telling culture,  where stories managed to survive when culture was being policed, a culture where human desire for hope came from stories told, retold, copied and changed.  The craft of calligraphy is central to The Book of Records, a story within the story that is used to fuel romance and reunite lost loves.  Another strand of this complex story is that of music.  Sparrow is a composer at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and his niece, Zhuli, is a violinist.  The notes of Bach and Stravinksy strain to be heard through the written word as the author ably communicates the significance of music to their lives.  Set against the backdrop of the cultural revolution, it is clear that state imposition of set scores and set composers to both study and play would threaten to stifle creativity. 
As well as poetry, story telling and music, there is maths! She conveys the significance of zero and this is reflected in her chapter numbers....see if you can spot where it shifts and why!

This is a piece of literary fiction that deserves your time.  Like all good novels with a foot in history, it uses fiction to convey historical reality. Take a deep breath, curl up for a long time and dive in.

Finally as promised, what I have been reading this week:
Benjamin Zephaniah: The Life And Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah
Andrea Ashworth: Once In A House on Fire
Seamus Deane: Reading in the Dark
William Faulkner: Barn Burning
Flannery O'Connor: Collected Short Stories

My favourite from those was Andrea Ashworth.  It was a harrowing memoir of a troubled childhood, but it is evocative, empathetic and conjures up a 1970's childhood, complete with pink marshmallow biscuits (remember those?!) perfectly.

1 comment:

  1. Who's the crazy woman in the photo?! Lovely to spend time with you, as always. xxx