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Jan 01, 2015
I'm joining the bandwagon of Fionnuala's idea for looking back at my reading over the last year. The result is to crystalise my joy at what I've read, I'm joining the bandwagon of Fionnuala's idea for looking back at my reading over the last year. The result is to crystalise my joy at what I've read, and appreciation of my friends here on GR.
Overall, I've read some wonderful things this year, and the very best was last: Stoner, but I immediately started rereading, so it's still flagged as "currently reading", and awaiting a review.
I read in my usual, undirected way: it was mostly fiction, and mostly novels, but there was no overriding theme, and I have no specific plans as to what to read in 2015.
I rated more than half of my readings as 4*, which is high for me, and only one was 1*: When She Woke (good concept, lousily executed).
Of my nine 5* reads, all but one were either rereads or recommendations from GR friends. I like that balance of old friends and new. Discussions with GR friends have also made me see new aspects and gain greater understanding of many books. This is what I love about my GR friends.
Fiction Highlights of 2014
"Stoner". A 5* rating is far less than it deserves. It is the most painfully exquisite book I have read; I'm still processing it, as I reread it. It is utterly wonderful. A huge "thank you" to Steve, whose review was the main reason I read it. My only worry now is whether I dare read anything else by Williams, as it surely can't be as good.
Steve also prompted me to take The God of Small Things off my shelf and actually read it. That was another 5* read, and I had some wonderful conversations with people about the book, and about a culture and setting of which I know very little.
"The Bone Clocks"... This is David Mitchell's new book, and turned out to be a sort of sequel to 4* The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which I reread afterwards. I had very mixed feelings. It wasn't what I expected or, really, wanted, but it was compelling, and the more I wrote about it and discussed it with GR friends, the richer I realised it was, despite it not being quite to my taste. Nevertheless, my ambivalence, coupled with an inability to be brief, meant I wrote two reviews with different ratings: The Bone Clocks 3* detailed and The Bone Clocks 4* spoiler-free.
Although I generally prefer the sustenance of a novel, I was struck by the powerful punch of three, very different, 4* short stories:
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas is a haunting parable by Ursula Le Guin about the price we pay for happiness.
The Egg by Andy Weir is only a couple of pages, but is about the purpose of life - and the answer is not 42.
Christina Rosetti's Goblin Market is a hypnotic and sensuous poem about temptation, with fairytale qualities.
I cemented my love for China Mieville (a relationship that got off to a VERY rocky start a few years ago) with the epic 5* Perdido Street Station.
I read my first Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance, and saw the links with David Mitchell, giving it 4*.
Angela Carter was a name I knew, but now I love. I read a riot of a novel, Wise Children 4* and some luscious adult fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber 5* as well as her short telling of Bluebeard 4* to tie in with Jane Eyre 5*. And now I realise my reading was not quite as "undirected" as I first said, because those led me to Vonnegut's utterly different Bluebeard 4* about US abstract expressionism, and because I'd read Jean Rhys' prequel to Jane Eyre, at the end of 2013, I read her semi-autobiographical Voyage in the Dark 3*.
I love the cold beauty and contrasting humour of Kafka, but had neglected him. I returned to Metamorphosis and other Stories and remain in awe of the man's range and insight.
Annie Proulx was known to me from reading The Shipping News in 2013 and via the film of Brokeback Mountain, but in 2014, I finally read it, along with the shamefully overlooked 4* novel, Postcards .
I reread Middlesex 4* and, six years after I first read it, saw the deeper truths. It's about transitions - of every kind. It is powerful and relevant to all. Including me. Change is afoot.
There were a couple of other 5* reads:
One was Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald. It captured a strange and fascinating community of boat dwellers in 1960s London. Like Middlesex, it was all about change.
The other was by Arnold Bennett, who is one of my favourite authors: Anna of the Five Towns is a little gem that encapsulates a singular woman in difficult circumstances.
There was of course, some Mervyn Peake. I reread Gormenghast and saw a stage production of it. I also enjoyed a trio of his children's books: A Book of Nonsense and Captain Slaughterboard and Figures of Speech, as well as some of his art: Writings and Drawings and Sketches from Bleak House.
I reminded myself why I should read at least one Iris Murdoch a year with 4* An Unofficial Rose. I love the machinations of her cast.
I also reacquainted myself with two authors of whom I'd only read one (excellent) book previously:
Rebecca West's beautifully written 4* coming of age novel set at the cusp of WW1, This Real Night.
Marghanita Laski's chilling psychological 4* drama The Victorian Chaise Longue.
Creepy in an entirely different way was Michel Faber's 3* Under the Skin. Very different in genre, style, tone and my liking from his utterly wonderful The Crimson Petal and the White.
2015 will feature the first birthday that I've had mixed feelings about, so reading Julian Barnes' collection The Lemon Table was perhaps a poor choice, as the stories all concern aspects of ageing - not in an especially negative way, and they're beautifully written, but I'm not sure I want to be reminded of such things.
My small dose of non-fiction was more diverse:
I was thrilled and amused and touched by the memoirs of a friend, Blown Like a Leaf 4*, and I shamelessly commend it to you.
E O Parrott's 4* How to Become Ridiculously Well-read in One Evening is a wonderful comic literary diversion for dipping into, though contrary to the title, you need to be reasonably well read in the first place to appreciate it.
The First Emperor: Selections from the Historical Records was fascinating, not just for the Chinese history, much of which was broadly familiar, but for the novel attitude to history itself: "official" history related as anecdotes, parables, opinion, dialogue, political ideology.
"The Bone Clocks" might have been, but definitely wasn't.
However, other tried and tested authors were: I've given up on Ishiguro after reading Nocturnes.
Atwood's final episode of the trilogy that started so well with Oryx and Crake wasn't really worth the time or paper (MaddAddam).
I'm not sure if I've changed or Updike has, but the misogyny and homophobia of A Month of Sundays was unsavoury.
I also read the well-reviewed Marriage Material on the basis that it was a good reworking of Arnold Bennett's wonderful Old Wives' Tale; it wasn't.
Looking ahead to 2015
There's plenty on my TBR pile, and positions on it will change, partly at the prompting of people reading this. The only thing I know for sure is that when I finish rereading and reviewing Stoner, I will go to something old - specifically, Trollope's Orley Farm. Other than that, I'll see what takes my fancy and when, but it's likely to include a second Murakami.
I do wonder if I should strive to write more succinct reviews in 2015 - if only to leave more time for reading. But then again, I'm reminded of the old chestnut, attributed to many writers, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time"! I suspect I have to accept that brevity is not my strong point.
I've just noticed that this is my 500th review on GR. It seems a suitable one for such a milestone. ...more
Notes are private!
Dec 31, 2014
Jan 03, 2015
A very short story (two pages of A4: http://www.galactanet.com/oneoff/thee...) by the author of The Martian (which I have yet to read).
It's too short A very short story (two pages of A4: http://www.galactanet.com/oneoff/thee...) by the author of The Martian (which I have yet to read).
It's too short to risk any spoilers, but it starts with a dead man's encounter with God, and follows their conversation, as the dead man asks what happens next, what the meaning of life is, etc. The answer is simple and complex, trivial and profound, religious and blasphemous (YMMV).
I'm not sure if I'm unsettled or uplifted.
Notes are private!
Dec 23, 2014
Dec 23, 2014
This is the first chapter of Kafka's novel that is usually titled Amerika (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), but it was published as a standa This is the first chapter of Kafka's novel that is usually titled Amerika (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), but it was published as a standalone short story and is also included in some copies of The Metamorphosis.
It opens with a description of a city, country and continent Kafka never saw: "New York looked at Karl with the hundred thousand windows of its skyscrapers." The ship, too, has windows (of course), but there are more references to them than one might expect in such a few pages.
Karl is only 16 and has been sent, alone, to escape the shame of being seduced by an older maid who bore his son (sexually assertive women are common in his works - and there is a very flirty kitchen maid on the ship as well). He travelled steerage, where there is "a glimmer of murky light, long since stale from its use in the decks above", and is due to meet a slightly wealthier uncle in New York.
He disembarks, then remembers he has left something behind, so leaves his trunk on shore (in the care of an acquaintance) and becomes disoriented in the labyrinth of the ship. He is befriended by the stoker who overs vague help, but really wants someone to listen to his grievances. During the voyage, Karl had protected his trunk obsessively, but now he seems not to care, and instead, takes the stoker's case to the captain.
There is enough of a resolution that it works as a short story, yet it doesn't quite work overall. ...more
Notes are private!
Dec 08, 2014
Sep 01, 1998
This collection of very short pieces is sometimes called Meditation, and under that name, is sometimes included in Metamorphosis.
These pieces are gene This collection of very short pieces is sometimes called Meditation, and under that name, is sometimes included in Metamorphosis.
These pieces are generally lighter than many of his works, though the recurring themes of loneliness, unease, judgement and watching are all present.
This review is really a collection of jottings for reference; don't expect great insights!
Children on a Country Road
A charming picture of carefree children, playing and exploring. Not at all Kafkaesque.
Unmasking a Confidence Trickster
Oppression, manners, unease.
But "the groundless devotion on the servants' faces rejoyced my heart".
The Sudden Walk
Almost a whole page in a single sentence: breaking out of routine by one decisive act.
A short and painful description of a slough of depression: resolving to do something about it, then thinking it would be futile. The ending is startlingly bathetic, humourous, even.
The Excursion into the Mountains
An apparently gloomy plan for a lonely trip, with unexpected levity ("It goes without saying that they all wear evening dress").
The Fate of the Bachelor
Not what Kafka wanted (he was engaged three times to two different women), but certainly what he feared. He died a bachelor and probably childless (there is some debate about the latter, but little evidence), but young enough that had he lived, he may yet have married.
Left behind; everyone else who matters has gone to America (prescient re his novel, Amerika?).
Beauty too: "The banisters of the staircase float down past the panes of frosted glass like a waterfall."
Stray Glance from the Window
A little prose poem that might be sinister...
The Way Home
Another window, but this character is a fortunate man, who is even aware of the fact.
The Men Running Past
Fear of following and of intervening (the latter echoing In The Penal Colony and Jackals and Arabs).
Existential angst, being "entirely uncertain as to my place in this world". But a pretty girl can transform thoughts.
No window this time, but a slightly voyeuristic appreciation of women's clothes, coupled with pragmatic concerns about the practicality of pleats.
The narrator imagines all the reasons a girl might ignore a request for a date, by comparing himself with an unrealistic ideal. Self-fulfilling prophesy?
For the Consideration of Amateur Jockeys
Counter-intuitive musings: surely no one would want to be a winner because winning divides friends and makes you look ridiculous to women "because he's swelling with pride" etc! "And finally from the now overcast sky it even begins to rain." Maybe something got lost in translation.
The Window on the Street
The importance of a window to stave off loneliness and to rejuvenate: "the horses down below will drag him into the train of their wagons and their tumult so in the end towards the harmony of man".
Longing to be a Red Indian
Dreams of America, again. But very brief.
In total; make of it what you will:
"For we are like the trunks of trees in the snow. Apparently they rest smoothly on the surface and with a gentle push we should be able to shift them. No, that one cannot, for they are firmly attached to the ground. But see, that too is only apparent."
Misery in one's room, haunted by a child (ghost, imagined or, in some sense, real?) but, once again, "found relief in a glance to the window". The child expected but also not expected; reality shifts:
"How can my not believing help me?... The real fear is the fear of what caused the apparition."
Notes are private!
Dec 08, 2014
This very short story has been published on its own, as a chapter in his novel The Trial (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) and in the collect This very short story has been published on its own, as a chapter in his novel The Trial (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) and in the collection The Country Doctor.
It's a short, allegorical tale on one of Kafka's key themes: judgement. (He studied law at university, and went on to work in insurance, investigating personal injury claims.)
"The law... should be accessible to everyone and at all times."
A man comes seeking justice (the reason is not stated), and the door to justice is open, but the doorkeeper won't let him pass. There is never an outright "no", nor any reason given, just prevarication and the implication (and it is only an implication) that one day it might be possible. The man waits, and waits. The doorkeeper takes bribes, just "so you won't feel there isn't anything you haven't tried." You can probably guess the outcome more-or-less.
Some of Kafka's stories have humour; this is not really one of them. Cold and haunting beauty, with an eerie familiarity (even the first time I read it) are the tone here.
You can read the whole thing here (two pages):
Notes are private!
Nov 28, 2014
Nov 28, 2014
Jan 01, 1993
Kafka wrote this short story in a single night and dedicated it to Felice Bauer, a new friend, to whom he was engaged for a while. It might be thought Kafka wrote this short story in a single night and dedicated it to Felice Bauer, a new friend, to whom he was engaged for a while. It might be thought a rather odd dedication, given that it's a chilling story of Georg's relationship with his disappointed father (as Herman Kafka apparently was with Franz).
As with many of Kafka's writings, windows feature. It starts with a man gazing out of a window, remembering his friend who emigrated to Russia three years earlier. In contrast, his father's window is firmly shut.
Georg is trying to write to his friend, and this is tricky because he is worried that his friend's life has stalled, so is reluctant to recount his own happy news, most particularly his forthcoming marriage (he assumes his friend has lost all chance of marriage).
Instead, he reports random gossip, but even this causes problems:
"Thus it happened that three times in three quite widely separated letters Georg had announced the engagement of some indifferent man to some equally indifferent girl, until quite contrary to his intentions his friend began to develop an interest in this notable occurrence."
Thus far, it is a realistic story of an earnest young man, unsure of what is the right thing to do, with a dash of dry humour, but then it becomes more unsettling.
The father questions Georg's sanity and whether his friend exists. There is a confusing row during which the father lists his many disappointments with his son, and the reader is left uncertain of the truth and which, if any, of the characters, is sane.
It culminates with the father passing a terrible judgement on his son. And most shockingly of all, the son unquestioningly acquiesces.
You can read the full story here (9 pages):
Notes are private!
Nov 28, 2014
Nov 28, 2014
Oct 01, 1997
The Country Doctor is the title of one of the stories published in a collection of the same name. They are also included in some versions of The Metam The Country Doctor is the title of one of the stories published in a collection of the same name. They are also included in some versions of The Metamorphosis.
The New Advocate
A short, surreal animal story: a war horse gives up war to become a lawyer!
A Country Doctor
A disturbing story, with nightmarish unreality (magical realism, even?), coupled with sinister snow (as in The Castle) and a suffering child.
The doctor has to get to the child, but the snow is heavy and he is without a horse. Yet somehow, horses and groom appear in his disused pigsty and he arrives at the child's house unnaturally fast. Once there, he is tormented by fears that the groom will assault his maid, and confusion about whether the child is healthy or dying (or in his imagination), and the strange behaviour and expectations of the family. Grim, uneasy doom. And snow.
You can read the full story here (5 pages):
Up in the Gallery
This perhaps better belongs in The Hunger Artist collection (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) of performance-related stories. It's an observation of a young woman, riding a circus horse.
You can read the whole page of it here:
A Leaf from an Old Manuscript
Timely when he wrote it and sadly so today. It's about fear and revulsion of immigrants and difference. Those who dislike them, portray them as violent, dirty, liars, robbers, who can't communicate properly, and "even their horses eat meat". The emperor is effectively trapped in his palace, gazing (like many Kafka characters) out of his window.
Before the Law
A chillingly allegorical, often published on its own, and reviewed here, with a link to the full text:
Jackals and Arabs
Back to immigrants, but with a more mythical feel. A traveller is greeted by jackals who treat him as a saviour from, or at least a mediator with, the Arabs, with whom they have an ancient blood feud. (The traveller registers no surprise that the jackals can speak.) It's not clear who is in the right, as as with the traveller In The Penal Colony (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), it raises the question of what an outsider can or should do to change things.
You can read the full story here (3 pages):
A Visit to the Mine
This has similarities with In The Penal Colony (but is more real, and lacking in gore) and the descriptions of the individual quirks of each of the ten engineers is rather like a more comical version of Eleven Sons (below). For one "responsibility has hollowed his eyes", and "while the gentlemen... have long since shed any trace of arrogance, the attendant seem to have accumulated it all in his own person."
The Next Village
Doom in a single, short paragraph.
A Message from the Emperor
A short insight into futility, and gazing through a window.
You can read the full story here (one page):
A Problem for the Father of the Family aka Odradek
One of Kafka's most surreal snippets, Odradek is a sort of cotton reel, but he moves and talks. His very existence hints at creationism ("one might be tempted to suppose that this object had once been designed") and issues of mortality: "the idea that he might also outlive me I find almost painful", a fear Kafka might well have had about friends and family. But what is the meaning of life anyway? "Everything that dies has previously had some kind of goal" - with the possible exception of the mysterious Odradek.
This is an especially sad (though occasionally humorous) but pertinently perceptive description of a man's 11 sons, and the different ways each has disappointed him. Several have acknowledged good qualities, but they are always balanced or exceeded by faults.
One has a minor eye problem, and also, his father thinks, "a slight irregularity of the spirit that somehow corresponds to it". Another is "good-looking" but "not the kind of good looks that I admire". As for the sixth son, who many praise, the father dislikes this because "it really seems to make praise a little too easy if one bestows it on someone so obviously praiseworthy."
Knowing of the fraught relationship between Kafka and his own father (Kafka was his only surviving son), I assumed that each was a facet of the author. However, the introduction to my copy says they were intended as the basis for eleven separate stories (which does not preclude them being based on himself, and some have very close parallels).
A murder weapon is "superfluous blood-stained ballast"!
Well, a nightmare. Who hasn't contemplated their own mortality, wondered what would be said about them when they are gone, and maybe even imagined their burial?
Report to the Academy
This is is an amusingly surreal slant on Jewish integration, reminiscent of Gerald the gorilla in the 1980s comedy show, Not the Nine O'clock News.
Red Peter tells of "my past life as an ape", but reminds his audience that they are not far removed from that state themselves. He was wild, captured, and eventually made a conscious choice, "I would cease to be an ape", because he realised "the way out was not to run away" but to act like a human. So he did - for purely utilitarian reasons, not because he had a desire to be human. Nevertheless, he has now "attained the cultural level of the average European".
All very impressive; the tricky aspect is that he keeps a chimpanzee for sex, but only for that, because "she has that wild, confused look of the trained animal in her eye". That seems painfully hypocritical, but those who assimilate or transition are sometimes accused of such things. Red Peter though, explicitly does not want judgement - something few Kafka characters escape.
Read the whole story here (8 pages):
See my review of the stage adaptation, Kafka's Monkey:
Notes are private!
Nov 28, 2014
Nov 28, 2014
Jan 01, 1973
"we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only ev "we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist"
I read these half-dozen pages a couple of days ago, and it haunts me still.
(Read it here: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/dun....)
A strange, disturbing and very thought-provoking short story.
There's something indefinably odd and slightly, chillingly, distant about the language from the start. That creates a suitably disconcerting contrast with the happy festival in an apparently Utopian town that it's describing. It sounds too good to be true, so the mysterious narrator (one of "the ones who walk away"?) makes suggestions directly to the reader as to how to make it more believable. That gives it a more allegorical feel.
It's unusual in a short story to spend so long on scene-setting, though true to the form, it takes an unexpected turn, which in this one, is rather grim and Biblical and/or Faustian:
What price happiness?
Who can and should sacrifice what for the greater good?
Do individual actions matter, or does going with the flow absolve individual blame?
Would you walk away from a familiar and comfortable life if you thought the price that others had to pay was too high?
But if walking way changes nothing, is it any worse than staying (and not changing things)?
Do we routinely ignore the true cost of our own comforts? Buying "fairtrade" products is maybe more of a salve to our conscience than those who toil in poor conditions, for little reward.
Who are my scapegoats and will I atone?
With the new Band Aid single in the news, I'm reminded of the horrific schadenfreude of the lyrics in the original 1984 version:
"Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you."
This story provides lots to think about from few words.
It fits so well with my currently rereading of some Kafka short stories that I've included it on my Kafka shelf.
Thanks to Apatt for pointing me to this.
Notes are private!
Nov 21, 2014
Nov 21, 2014
Jun 20, 2006
After the 63 pages: “Stunned by Stoner. This is agonisingly wonderful.”
At the end: “Finished. Him and me. Exquisite but exhausted.”
Then I immediately After the 63 pages: “Stunned by Stoner. This is agonisingly wonderful.”
At the end: “Finished. Him and me. Exquisite but exhausted.”
Then I immediately started rereading - something I have only previously done with children’s picture books.
It is, without question, my joint favourite book ever. (Titus Groan/Gormenghast is the other, in a very different way.) For that reason, I’ve really struggled with this review: it’s hard to explain its mesmerising power in a way that does it justice. In a departure from my usual technique, what follows is from the heart, with very little reference to my copious notes, though I intend to come back to them at some stage so that I can add quotes.
WHAT SORT OF STORY?
It opens with a page of downbeat, but carefully crafted spoilers, rather like an obituary, after which, the story is told straightforwardly and chronologically, from William Stoner’s last days at school and on his parents’ farm, to life as a university student, then university faculty member, marriage, parenthood, affair, and finally his death. His main joy is literature, and the university that enables him to share that love with others, reflected in simple but heartfelt words on his retirement, “Thank you all for letting me teach”.
It sounds dull, banal or both, but it's not. It's heartbreakingly beautiful, without being sentimental, and because Stoner is never without hope, I didn't find it a depressing.
CONTRASTS: ELOQUENCE and INARTICULACY, STRONG and WEAK, SUCCESS and FAILURE, GAIN and LOSS
It’s a book about language and literature, and yet inarticulacy is a recurring theme: it is the direct cause of most of the pain, but also the trigger for his main happiness: in a compulsory literature review, it is his inability to understand, or perhaps to explain his understanding of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 that triggers a life-long passion and career. This reticence or inability to talk about innermost thoughts is perhaps one reason why the causes of Edith's behaviour are only hinted at: anything more explicit would set the wrong tone (and might not have been appropriate when published).
Almost all Stoner’s dreams come true, but happiness is always elusive and ephemeral. The good things are lost or, worse still, taken away by someone he had hoped would be his love or friend (Edith and Lomax, respectively). Both antagonists are sensitive, damaged people (as is Stoner) and Lomax even shares his love of literature for similar reasons (escape).
One message of the book is “carpe diem” (seize the day, or in youth speak: YOLO), which is also reflected in Sonnet 73’s focus on decay, death, and enjoying what we have while we can.
Stoner can be brave, such as swapping from an agricultural degree course with its predictable future to an English literature degree, inspired by a sonnet he struggled to explain – and yet he doesn’t have the courage to tell his parents until after they’ve attended his graduation.
WHAT SORT OF MAN?
Some see Stoner as passive and weak. Certainly there are many times when I wanted him to act differently, or just to act at all - in particular, to stand up for his daughter and his lover.
Instead, he is quietly stoical, which is apt, given his areas of interest include classical Greek literature. His quiet stoicism, born of parental fortitude and nurtured by habit and habitat runs too deep for him to act as others would.
He loses everything he values (even the rapport with his students and the ability to enjoy his books) and in many respects, he is a failure as son, husband, father, lover, even scholar – but he keeps going, never bearing a grudge, trying his best. So sad, and yet curiously inspirational.
TIME AND PLACE
Unlike some readers, I find Stoner entirely believable, especially when you consider the much higher social cost of divorce back then.
Would the story be any happier if it were set today? It would certainly be different, but flawed people raise flawed people. Tolstoy famously wrote “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and that would be just as true of one unhappy family transplanted from one period in history to another.
In a contemporary setting, even if he had married Edith (unlikely?), she would surely have got help (bi-polar abuse survivor?), though maybe too late to fend off divorce. Either way, matters would turn out better for Katherine and Grace, and Lomax and Walker would probably not have got away with as much as they did. I'm sure it's no coincidence that Williams set it more than a generation earlier than the time he was writing.
SPEAKING TO ME
Why did this book move me in such a direct and personal way? I'm not a man, not American, wasn't born at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries and have never been a farmer or a professor. But I do love books, I do need escape sometimes, and I did spend much of my childhood on a family farm, though there was never any expectation that I would be a farmer.
The farm is part of it though: in some ways, Stoner reminds me of my beloved grandfather, who died when I was 14. Although he had a happier life than Stoner, he had the same quiet but dogged resilience, and always tried to make the best of what life or wife threw at him.
The other aspect that poured from the pages, especially second time round, was the emotional damage caused by bad parenting (albeit sometimes with good intentions), caused or exacerbated by poor communication. I was repeatedly reminded of Larkin’s famous lines “They fuck you up your mum and dad… But they were fucked up in their turn” (see below). Although I had a largely happy childhood, there were odd, complex and problematic aspects that have left their mark on the sort of adult and parent I am, and although I’m the mother of a wonderful 20 year old, I’m very conscious of things my husband and I could, and perhaps should, have done differently. (I think we’re doing better than the Stoners, though.)
Soil. Stoner is a son of the soil and there are many allusions to its power to spread and bind, whether seeping through the floorboards or being ingrained in the skin or mind. Soil chemistry is the only agricultural course mentioned by name, and Stoner enjoyed it – until he discovered his greater love: literature. He is transplanted from the countryside to the university, where he puts down roots, and stays – no matter what.
The university is the setting for almost all of the novel and arguably a character in its own right. Early on, one of the characters muses whether it is a path to self-fulfillment, an instrument for social good, or just an asylum. The novel quietly demonstrates that it is all three.
“Lust and learning… that’s really all there is” says one character, but both of those need an outlet. The insularity of most of the main characters and their unwillingness or inability to discuss or even show their feelings means they are lonely outsiders who can’t relish life. That aloneness exerts a high price that manifests itself in different ways; the saddest outcome is for Grace, Stoner’s daughter. We need to reach out to each other, communicate, and seize the day.
At times, Stoner is like Don Quixote, with Gordon Finch as a brighter and more influential sidekick than Sancho. This friendship is the one enduring human relationship. Finch repeatedly takes risks to help his friend, and yet it is a very understated friendship, that is not especially close. An area to explore further on a reread?
There are three troubling aspects, but that conflict is part of what makes the book compelling:
• Two characters are self-described “cripples”. Times and vocabulary have changed, so that’s not the issue. What is harder is the fact that both characters are unpleasant and both use their disability to make false and malicious claims of prejudice to their own advantage.
• What are the issues around consent for sleep-sex, given that the other party won’t countenance it when fully conscious, but is, at some level, vaguely aware of it when nearly asleep?
• The emotional abuse and manipulation of children is ghastly – but sadly credible. Edith is a victim who inflicts even worse damage on her daughter, but I was shocked that Stoner felt so helpless to protect Grace, and there were a couple of passages where he seemed to care more about his lover than his daughter.
Another issue that may be controversial is whether some of Edith’s behaviour is indicative of her being bi-polar. Such a term is never used, and I’m no expert, but her regular alternation between extreme business and prolonged periods of being helpless and bedridden for no outwardly visible reason suggest something like that to me. Or maybe her problems are entirely due to her cold and repressive childhood. (After her father’s suicide, she destroys everything connected with him; is this just anger at his death, or something more sinister? I suspect the latter.) So it comes back to Larkin.
Apart from Larkin, aspects of this brought to mind:
• Ian McEwan’s honeymoon novella On Chesil Beach: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....
• Any of the Richard Yates novels I’ve read: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list....
• The paintings of Edward Hopper such as Room in New York: http://www.artexpress.ws/painting-img....
To be added…
THIS BE THE VERSE, by Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
(For the record, I endorse the truth of the first two verses, but do not advocate the third, which is a decision only you can make.)
Notes are private!
Dec 08, 2014
Jan 06, 2015
Nov 17, 2014
Dec 01, 2004
Dec 01, 2004
Today, we visited this delightful, beautiful and VERY quirky house. That style is reflected in the guide book, written by the owner, the Marquis de Pi Today, we visited this delightful, beautiful and VERY quirky house. That style is reflected in the guide book, written by the owner, the Marquis de Piro.
It has a fascinating history, going back a long way, and the house is cluttered in the best possible way, with very varied trinkets (great works of art to low-level bric-a-brac), reflecting the family history and connections. Excellent taste was demonstrated in the many bookshelves. ;)
Here's the website for the house: http://www.casaroccapiccola.com/
This was one of my two favourite things in Malta (along with the incredibly ancient Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni).
(I wouldn't normally review a guide book, but I was charmed by the place and the book, was awaiting delivery of a cocktail, and was sad to see than not one of de Piro's books had a single rating.)
Notes are private!
Oct 07, 2014
Oct 07, 2014
Oct 07, 2014
Sep 02, 2014
This is a detailed summary of key features of the book. I’ve hidden big spoilers, but there may be minor ones, depending on your definition of “spoile This is a detailed summary of key features of the book. I’ve hidden big spoilers, but there may be minor ones, depending on your definition of “spoiler”.
I have a briefer, spoiler-free, and very different, review here (different * rating, too): https://www.goodreads.com/review/show..., which is more about my feelings for the book. It also includes a selection of favourite quotes and links to interviews. The difference in star rating is deliberate: I couldn't decide.
LINKS AND THEMES
This book, perhaps more than any of his others, cannot be viewed in isolation. In particular, it is closely tied to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
I’ve read all Mitchell’s previous books (four of them twice): connectedness is the most overarching theme, within and between books.
All (except Black Swan Green?) muse on (im)mortality, specifically souls moving from one body to another, but not in a spooky paranormal way; it’s more matter-of-fact than that. The sometimes uneasy host/guest/invader relationship is mirrored in wider themes about power, exploitation and survival of the fittest. Music often features, as do islands, rescue vessels (literal and metaphorical), and survival despite societal collapse. Here, there is no sudden, total apocalypse and it happens without a glittering high-tech future in between.
Most famously, characters from one book make fleeting appearances in another. This is fun,
I like the idea that just as his novels (including this) are often built up of connected stories in different styles, those novels have a similar relationship to each other: stories within stories within stories, creating a whole world of connections: immortality by transferring from one vessel to another.
“Each of my novels are expanders or chapters in a kind of uber-book, a piece of a universe that all my novels are making”. That makes it less surprising that his next five novels are “planned to some degree”. One will be the final volume of the Marinus trilogy.
The Thousand Autumns had seemed to be a fairly conventional historical novel with fewer connections than Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas; The Bone Clocks changes that, exposing overlaps and hidden fantasy:
• Marinus, a significant character in The Thousand Autumns, is a major character in this.
• Marinus mentions Arie Grote from his life in Dejima in Thousand Autumns.
• The immortality-seeking baby-eating cult in Thousand Autumns is presumably an early grouping of Anchorites.
• We glimpse Prescience, precursors of the Prescients from Cloud Atlas.
• Hugo Lamb’s cousin is Jason Taylor, the main character in Black Swan Green (who was in turn, heavily based on Mitchell).
• Ed Brubeck writes for Spyglass magazine, as did Luisa Rey in Cloud Atlas.
• Elijah D’Arnoq is a reincarnation or descendant of a D’Arnoq that Adam Ewing encounters in The Chatham Islands in Cloud Atlas.
• Dwight Silverwind from Ghostwritten makes a small but significant appearance.
• Mo Muntervary has small important roles here and in Ghostwritten.
• There is a mention of a battle in a sunken garden, the title of the opera Mitchell recently wrote the libretto for.
• Holly’s family get takeaways from The Thousand Autumns Restaurant (though it’s Chinese, not Japanese).
• Soleil Moore: she’s an Asian-American poet who is really important, then drops out of the narrative completely. I’m guessing she’ll feature prominently in a future book.
There are also characters apparently based on real characters: Lord Roger Brittan is a minor character, rather like Lord (Alan) Sugar; more obviously, Crispin Hershey is remarkably like Martin Amis (see below).
The book even references itself: Hershey bases one of his characters on Holly’s husband, and Soleil Moore accuses him of having written about Anchorites.
There is an enormous cast, and some characters live in multiple bodies and so go by different names. Those peripheral in one section are often significant in later one.
I don’t need to like the protagonists of a book, which is just as well. Holly isn’t unlikeable, but I found her voice annoying and trying too hard to sound teenage, yet not always believable. (In particular, endless abbreviations: “Ed Brubeck’ll be”, “Mam will’ve told Dad… ‘bout why”, and the apostrophe-esses that weren’t possessive were easy to stumble over).
Other characters are highly unpleasant, yet somehow lacking the glamour of a really good baddie.
Many have accents in their names, which was a little distracting: Zoe, Anais, Eilish, Oshima, Immaculee – but not Aoife.
Hershey, Amis, Mitchell?
Critics have seen close parallels between Martin Amis and former “Wild Child of British Letters”, Crispin Hershey: in terms of life events, writing style, personality, and book titles (Hershey’s successful Desiccated Embryos and another called Red Monkey compared with Amis’ Dead Babies and Yellow Dog). Martin's father, Kingsley, is even quoted, saying a bad review might spoil breakfast, but he wouldn’t let it spoil lunch.
Mitchell has repeatedly denied any conscious link. Instead, he claims Hershey is “not just my worst aspect, he’s my fears. He’s what I might turn into if I’m not careful” and he "is all the worst parts of me, amplified and smooshed together" and in this section "I got to have a lot of fun spoofing people like me". Hershey’s most successful novel has a symmetrical structure, like Cloud Atlas.
Most literary critics are sceptical. The Guardian wondered whether “buried deep within this scrupulously polite and unassuming writer, a revenge fantasist [is] just waiting to punish the reviewers who dismiss him” or if he’d “belatedly woken up to the fact that taking a pop at his literary elders is not necessarily the smartest career move”.
I’ve only read one Amis novel, and nothing else by him; I wonder if he has Crispin’s quirk of alternating between first and third person for himself – even in a single sentence!
META – MUSINGS ON WRITING
Mitchell sees each collection of related novellas as part of a greater work: echoes and foreshadowing abound, Hershey’s failed book has “Echo” in the title, and elsewhere, we’re told the mysterious “Script” “loves to foreshadow”.
In this, he explicitly muses on fiction, writing, and lit crit, and pre-empts some potential criticisms of this book. The bad review that kill Hershey's sales, includes, “Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower… The fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretentions, I cannot bear to look… What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” Later, “A book can’t be a half fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant.”
After the second deus ex machina moment, Mitchell has one of the characters declare it as such, just so you know he knows.
In some ways, Hershey is very unlike Mitchell, observing that “in publishing, it’s easier to change your body than it is to switch genre” – something Mitchell makes a speciality of. He also makes prescriptive judgements on writing that I doubt Mitchell subscribes to in blanket terms: “Double-negatives are truth smugglers” and “Adverbs are cholesterol in the veins of prose”.
“A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synaesthesia and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardise your relationships and distend your life.”
At one point, Hugo observes, “such narrative arcs make great movies, but shitty lives”; he neglects to say what sort of books they make.
This is deceptively straightforward for Mitchell: a chronological story of one woman’s life, told in six, first-person parts:
1984 “A Hot Spell”
Illustrated with a disintegrating clock, narrated by Holly, a fifteen-year old who heard voices as a child, and now runs away after bust ups with parents and boyfriend. It is not Orwellian.
(view spoiler)[From aged 7, Holly occasionally heard voices she called “The Radio People” – “not a ghost… but a visitor to your mind”. One night, one of them (Miss Constantin) appeared in her room, and afterwards, a bully Holly mentioned is hit by a van! Shortly after that, a psychiatrist (Dr Marinus) gets rid of the voices. Now, aged 15, after a row with her parents, she runs away to be with her boyfriend. Just before she goes, her brilliant but weird younger brother, Jacko, gives her a labyrinth he’s drawn and stresses the importance of her memorising it. She finds boyfriend Vinny in bed with best friend Stella, so heads off on her own. She meets a strange old woman who knows her name and says she may ask for asylum. She thinks she glimpses Jacko in an underpass, but it can’t possibly be him and then it turns into a more muddled multi-sensory hallucination. Later, she’s staying with a couple who are suddenly dead, apparently by the power (or maybe just poison) of a strange and sinister visitor who rambles about all sorts of stuff neither she nor the reader understand. There is a bizarre, rather filmic fight, but she escapes and has her memory of it wiped. How is she narrating what was wiped? And a few pages later, she muses, “When you know your memory’s been monkeyed around with once, how can you ever be sure of any memory again?”. She heads for a fruit farm and dreams she is pregnant (we later discover she was, and had an abortion). Ed Brubeck turns up and tells her Jacko is missing. (hide spoiler)]
1991 “Myrrh is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume”
Illustrated with Holly’s labyrinth, told by Hugo Lamb, a conscience-free, money-loving Cambridge student, not quite as aristo as his equally obnoxious friends. Far more important than it first seems.
(view spoiler)[Hugo loves music (shades of Alex in Clockwork Orange, for more reasons than that: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), and in a crucial scene, he’s approached by beautiful Immacule Constantin, who asks him about power. He gives a pompous student answer. Her reply includes “Power is lost or won, never created or destroyed… Power is crack cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul… Power’s comings and goings from host to host… are the plot of history… Power itself is amoral… Power is watching you.” She offers him “perpetual deferral of death”, but doesn’t explain, and next thing he knows, it’s an hour later and she’s gone. Reading to an old family friend with Alzheimer’s, exposes Hugo’s fears (“Whatever I do with my life… I, too, will end up like this vile old man… I’m looking down time’s telescope at myself”). A train ride prompts other musings, “’I am the system you have to beat’ clacks the carriage… Another train on a parallel track… glimpse the young City worker I’ll have turned into this time next year… but his train sways away down a different track.” Hugo is a nasty piece of work: apart from fleecing old Brigadier Philby of his valuable stamps, he sets up a friend(!) to lose heavily in a card game so that the friend will be forced to sell a vintage car that Hugo will take a cut of, and when the victim drives it over a cliff, Hugo’s only thought is “I could weep. All that money.” He’s never been in love and realises “Nothing throws the chasm between me and Normals into starker relief than grief and bereavement.” He meets Holly in a Swiss ski resort, where she’s a barmaid, and although she seems immune to his charms, they have a fling and he (maybe) falls in love. Elijah D’Arnoq, who tried to recruit him to a student shooting club called the Anchorites wants him to take a leap of faith to find out what it’s all about. Hugo realises he’s being offered a Faustian pact and that “tends not to have a happy ending”. (hide spoiler)]
2004 “The Wedding Bash”
Illustrated with a crystal ball showing the Middle East, told by Ed Brubeck. Two very contrasting aspects: the excitement of a family wedding and life (and constant risk of death) as a reporter in Iraq.
(view spoiler)[ Ed is back from reporting in Iraq for Holly’s sister’s wedding; he sees himself as “an archivist for the future”, which is one way of assuaging the guilt of being away so much: “Aoife’s childhood is a book. I’m flicking through instead of reading properly”. When he’s out with Aoife, Immacule turns up, saying she’s a friend of Holly’s and checks the six year old for an “invisible eye”. Aoife wants to go to the fortune teller (Dwight Silverwind), but Ed refuses. Great Aunt Eilish describes Jacko (who was never found) as a changeling: he was ordinary until he caught meningitis aged five. Eighteen months later, he was different and knew too much for his age, but “It wasn’t Jacko’s brain that changed… it was his soul.” He even told her he was “a well-intentioned visitor”. She had to tell Ed this because it’s in the Script, and he should “Believe her [Holly], even if you don’t believe in it”. Ed and Aoife have a nap and when he wakes, she’s gone. He assumes she’s gone to Dwight; she hasn’t, but he helps look for her, telling Ed “I’m scripted to stay with you until the end”. Holly faints, says “ten fifteen” and drops her labyrinth pendant; Dwight realises it means room 1015, which is where she is. It’s as if Holly was one of the Radio People. (hide spoiler)]
2015 “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”
Illustrated with a spider and web, told by Crispin, an amoral, formerly successful, novelist.
(view spoiler)[See notes about Amis, and Meta, above. Hershey was the “Wild Child of British Letters”, having had a very successful book (Desiccated Embryos) but a later one (Echo Must Die ) savagely reviewed by a uni friend of Hugo’s called Richard Cheeseman. Hershey blames Cheeseman for ruining his career. He takes revenge. The repercussions are far worse than expected, but he’s not overburdened with guilt, seeing Cheeseman as a thief, he “committed the action. I am the reaction.” Meanwhile, widowed Holly has written a bestselling memoir called “The Radio People”, and they keep running into each other at book festivals around the world. He hates all the psychobabble, but, they form a friendship. Although Holly no longer hears The Radio People, she does get occasional premonitions, “I’d be mugged by a bunch of facts that hadn’t happened yet” and she has a specific recurring vision related to him, of “a spider, a spiral and a one-eyed man”. All three feature, loosely, in his sudden death at the hands of Soleil Moore, who thinks that killing him is the only way to make the world read her poems (that he had not) and so learn about the Anchorites. (hide spoiler)]
2025 “An Horologist’s Labyrinth”
Illustrated with an apple, narrated by Marinus. It becomes full-on YA fantasy here. It reminded me of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. If I’d read any Dan Brown, I might spot parallels there.
Plotwise, it could have ended at the end of this, but my rating would have been lower, as I found this section increasingly silly.
(view spoiler)[This is where the bulk of the strange vocab occurs (see below). There is much backstory of Marinus (in his 36th body), and especially the long-standing war between Horologists (good) and Anchorites (bad). Repeated lives, coupled with premonitions is almost like time travel (people sending messages to their future selves via complex routes, for instance), people swap body/sex//country/name, and there’s plenty of crossing and double-crossing. Anchorites are predators: they kill engifted children at regular intervals to maintain immortality and after that, they don’t age and can... teleport! “They are addicts and their drug is artificial longevity.” Horologists are “born” as such, and when one body dies, they pass harmlessly to another random body, sometimes sharing a body with another soul. The Horologists have a complicated plan to destroy the Anchorites (a previous one failed): multiple body swaps, life and death, fighting, transporting, borderline magic… exciting, or just silly? It was the latter for me: the incantations sounded like Harry Potter spells, someone is bludgeoned with a rolling pin, and the writing goes crazy, “hidden by a Deep Stream cloak… got to you with a quantum totem” and “a crack in the fabric of the Chapel of the Dusk” – bring me Lyra’s Subtle Knife and be done! Anchorites see things rather differently: “Horology is a club for immortals who prevent others from attaining their own privileges”, which conveniently overlooks all the killing. The end of this chapter was a foregone conclusion for me, albeit not in the details, with a deus ex machina. (hide spoiler)]
2048 “Sheep’s Head”
Illustrated with a running fox silhouetted against an ominously large moon, told by Holly, who is old, and struggling to raise two children, as a slow-burn apocalypse approaches. There is irony the fact this increasingly desperate situation is utterly plausible and grounded in current and possible events. The fantasy battles of the previous chapter seems irrelevant – especially as connectedness is the most fundamental thing to collapse (“the commodity we’re most in need of is news”).
(view spoiler)[Holly has survived cancer, but is old, living in rural Ireland, raising Aoife’s daughter and a young boy refugee. It is The Endarkment: global power shortages, barely any internet, rising sea levels, food (and everything else) is rationed, a nuclear power station is leaking, gangs roam, and the Chinese dominate the economy (mail order brides now go from Europe to the East) and have concession in Ireland. The prognosis is decline, “For most of my life, the world shrank and technology progressed” but she now realises that “’the natural order of things’ is entirely man-made.” She lives in an area protected by government forces, but is all too aware that as life gets harder, that may not be sustainable: “Civilization’s like the economy… if people stop believing it’s real, it dies”. Painfully real, basic survival is in sharp contrast to the preceding section. There’s another deus ex - and this time the characters themselves recognise it as such (another pre-emptive strike by Mitchell). In its defence, it does tie up with Cloud Atlas. (hide spoiler)]
The vocab list for anyone interested in horology became somewhat ludicrous. Here’s a sample:
Scansion, Incorporeals, Atemporals, Sojourners (go straight from one body to another, usually of the same sex), Returnee (“each resurrection is a lottery of longitudes, latitudes and demography”, usually alternating gender, with a 49 day gap), subtalk, the Script, Aperture, Shaded Way, psychovoltaic, “hiatus freezes [someone], suasion forces [them]”, oubliette, psychosoterica, carnivorous psycho-decanter, animacides, soul thieves, chakra-latent, dreamseed, metalife, transversing.
“For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.” I think that sums up Mitchell’s approach to his novels.
Mitchell quotes mostly from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/p...), and http://www.theguardian.com/books/book.... Also interviews on BBC Radio 2’s Book Club, and Radio 4’s Front Row (that I can’t find online any more).
All my Mitchell reviews are here:
Notes are private!
Sep 24, 2014
Sep 24, 2014
Sep 27, 2014
Sep 02, 2014
I read this, couldn't decide whether it was 2* or 4*, and knew it would take a while to digest it properly and write a full review. So I decided to do I read this, couldn't decide whether it was 2* or 4*, and knew it would take a while to digest it properly and write a full review. So I decided to do two: this is the short, spoiler-free, initial thoughts one. The much longer, and very different, one is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... (its spoilers are hidden).
Two reviews allows two ratings, but by the time I'd finished this, I realised even with its faults, it's not 2*, so it will be 3* and 4* from me.
Narrative Structure and Plot
It's a relatively straightforward narrative for Michell: a chronological story of one life. However, like Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, it is also a collection of related stories, in different styles and genres (like CA, it's in six parts). In this case, the first and last sections are narrated by the central character (Holly), and the other four, by those playing a key role during that episode of her life.
In Mitchell’s own words (jotted down almost verbatim) in an interview on BBC Radio 2’s Book Club:
A murderous feud between two circles of pseudo immortals: one benign and one decidedly predatory. It erupts every ten years or so. Holly moves from pawn to decisive weapon, as she develops from being primarily a daughter, through lover, to mother, improbable and reluctant bestselling writer, (he missed out the fifth one, but I’d say confused combatant), and finally, battle-scarred grandmother. It’s about mortality, and several characters are offered a Faustian pact: keep your youth in return for having your conscience amputated. (Mind you, there’s at least one character who rather lacking in the conscience department, even without such a pact.)
But although it's ostensibly about a woman, it's always in relation to the men she encounters, and most of them are pretty unpleasant. So really, it's about men. There's no reason why it shouldn't be, but I think it's only fair to point out a potential wrong expectation.
It could easily and satisfactorily have ended after the fifth section, but didn’t, which I’m glad about, despite the sharp contrast.
I’ve described the key features of each section in my detailed review.
As with all Mitchell's books, this one features characters from and references to his other works. Most have a peripheral role here (there's no need to be familiar with their other appearances), but one major character was significant in The Thousand Autumns (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), making that book seem much less of a straightforward historical novel than it appeared at the time.
In Mitchell’s own words, “Each of my novels are expanders or chapters in a kind of uber-book, a piece of a universe that all my novels are making”. It started out as fun, but "I’m building a coherent, megalomaniac's, large-scale world of an uber-novel".
Very recently, he said:
“I think I have recently discovered I am basically not a novelist, I am a novella writer. If you put novella A next to novella B then they – interact isn’t right – smack off each other, they glint at each other. They possibly echo or reflect each other, and make a third thing.”
Mitchell's favoured themes of power, predacity, exploitation, contrasted with sacrifice, mortality, islands, lifeboats (in a loose sense) and refuge are strong. Migrating souls are central, and there are other touchpoints, such as music, and life approaching or after societal collapse.
There's a comprehensive list my other review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Mixed Genres and Age Groups
The early sections have a few incidents that might be paranormal or just psychological, but it's all broadly realistic. Only later does it turn overtly fantastical (at which point you begin to realise some of the foreshadowing in earlier sections) and it's more like something by Philip Pullman (or perhaps Dan Brown, who I haven't read).
Swapping genres is a trick Mitchell has pulled off well before, but this feels like switching age groups, which may be why it feels more jarring. The contrast between the very realistic (I assume) sections set in the Iraq war and the more YA fantastical war in the later parts is a powerful disconnect. Is that a strength or a weakness? I'm not sure.
What Price Immortality?
This question is never explicitly asked, but it screams from the pages. Would I want to live forever, even if such an ability was benignly acquired? Probably not (what about friends and family?), and yet, there’s always one more enticing experience. Mitchell himself says he chose the motivation for the evil protagonists based on what would tempt him: not money or sex, but "never having to stop... never having to end... not having to say "goodbye" to this world".
Even one who has lived through many lives fears “Will I die without ever reading Ulysses to the end?”. I haven’t even started that! Then again, as one mortal says, “We sort of live on, as long as there are people to live on in”, meaning grandchildren, whether biological or just a younger generation one has influenced.
Wouldn’t it be nice to erase bad memories, as could be done by some in this book? If you’ve seen “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind”, you may be less sure. But without the bad, the good would seem less good, and our lives would lack colour and contrast. Also, what if you knew something had been erased? “When you know your memory’s been monkeyed around with once, how can you ever be sure of any memory again?” And “If you can’t trust your mind any more, you’re mentally homeless.” I think for most of us, we’re probably better off keeping most of our memories.
Quite a few, I’m afraid:
Some of the narrators were annoying: teenage Holly didn’t ring true (and used odd abbreviations) and Crispin Hershey alternates between first and third person for himself.
One of the irritations is how knowing this book is: Mitchell pre-empts some of the more obvious criticisms by applying them to a book that (like this) jumps oddly into fantasy, and having a character acknowledging a deus ex machina by that label. There’s a lot more about these aspects in my lengthier review.
Conversely, lack of knowing is an issue: on at least two occasions a narrator has a memory wiped – and yet they’re able to describe before, during and after.
Spotting cross-overs with his other books can be fun, and it creates a broader canvas for an uber-book or universe, but occasionally it feels like gratuitous showing-off. However, one can never be certain there isn't a good reason, yet to be revealed, so I end up forgiving him.
The sections describing reporting from a war zone are very well done, but there was just too much of it for my taste –and most of it wasn’t very relevant for this book (but who knows about future ones?).
A trivial but (for me) distracting feature was the excessive use of names with all manner of accents, even for English characters. Just because computer typesetting makes it easy, doesn't make it desirable.
He even throws in the most famous line from Game of Thrones (it must be famous, as I've neither read nor watched it) - or maybe that was just co-incidence.
Strength – So Much
And yet... and yet... even though I didn't care enough about any of the characters until the very end (which is not the same as liking them, which is not something I need to enjoy a book) I was keen to keep reading at every opportunity, and am glad I did. And now that I've finished, I find I have SO much to mull over, I realise what a powerful book it is.
“For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.” I think that sums up Mitchell’s approach to his novels.
• A bone clock “whose face betrays how very, very little time they have left.”
• “There’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff.”
• “What if heaven is real, but only in moments? Like a glass of water on a hot day when you’re dying of thirst, or when someone’s nice to you for no reason… Like the best song anyone ever wrote, but a song you only catch in snatches.”
• “Whatever’s slowing down isn’t inside me… it’s time slowing up or gravity pulling harder, or air changing to water.”
• “a low-tide sort of face” (of a man in his sixties).
• “When you know your memory’s been monkeyed around with once, how can you ever be sure of any memory again?”
• “King’s College choir’s sixteen bat-eared choristers, bereft of hair styles.”
• Music “chasing its echoey tail around the sumptuous ceiling before dive-bombing the scattering of winter tourists… [it] binds your quivery soul to the mast and lashes it with fiery sublimity.”
• “I let Piccadilly Circus tube station suck me down into its vortex of body odour and bad breath… commuters sway likes sides of beef, and slump like corpses.”
• “Persuasion is not about force: it’s about showing a person a door, and making him or her desperate to open it.”
• “A wealthy upbringing compounds stupidity while a hard-scrabble childhood dilutes it… This is why the elite need a prophylactic barrier of shitty state schools.”
• “Love is a blurring of pronouns. Love is subject and object.
• “The morning cold is a plunging cold; but the blue sky’s blue as Earth from space, and the warmth from the sun’s a lover’s breath; and icicles drip drops of bright in steep-sloped streets from story books whose passers-by have mountain souls.”
• “The impossible is negotiable. What is possible is malleable.”
• “Like all belongers, the Sykeses and Webbers don’t notice how easily they slip into groups.”
• “Clouds curdled pink in the narrow sky above the blast barriers lining the highway into Baghdad.”
• “The stranger absorbs Hershey’s withering stare like a man in his prime with nothing to fear, notwithstanding the damage that Time the Vandal has done to his face.”
• The US president has “orthodontically majestic sons”.
• “Modesty is vanity’s craftier step-brother.”
• The soul is “a spiritual memory-stick in search of a corporeal hard-drive; and as a placebo we generate to cure our dread of mortality.”
• “Esther enfolded my soul in hers so I could spirit walk much further and faster than I was otherwise able. When she scansioned me I felt like a third-rate poet showing his doggerel to Shakespeare. When I scansioned her I felt like a minnow tipped from a jar into a deep inland sea”.
• “The sun’s sunk behind the [mountain], so the greens are stewing to greys and browns. Leaves and twigs are losing their three-dimensionality… The glass of dusk is filling.”
• “She walks as if distrustful of floors, and sits down as if she’s had some bad experiences with chairs too.”
• “’What lives one day must die’ can, in rare circumstances, be renegotiated… Atemporality, with terms and conditions applied.”
• “There are days when New York strikes me as a conjuring trick. All great cities do and must revert to jungle… Today, however, New York’s here-ness is incontestible, as if time is subject to it, not it subject to time…. Welded girders, inhabited sidewalks and more bricks than there are stars. Who could ever have predicted these vertical upthrusts and squally canyons?”
• Paraphrasing Arthur C Clarke, “Some magic is normality you’re not yet used to.”
• “If you could reason with religious people, there wouldn’t be any religious people.” (It’s rather missing the point of faith, but is true nevertheless.)
• “The sound of waves dies and gives birth to the sound of waves, for ever and ever.”
* A presentation to librarians, in which Mitchell talks initially in general terms and then, from 11:45, The Bone Clocks specifically: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxq-F...
* Q&A with HuffPo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09...
* Interview that includes a chart of cross-over characters: http://www.vulture.com/2014/08/david-...
* Barnes and Noble interview, including much about Marinus in both this and Thousand Autumns, as well as the importance of music: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/review/...
* LA Review of Books, general lit crit of Mitchell's uber-novel, but mainly in relation to The Bone Clocks: https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/ad...
All my Mitchell reviews are here:
Notes are private!
Sep 03, 2014
Sep 23, 2014
Sep 03, 2014
Jul 01, 2008
A plot summary would make this short, but perfectly formed novel sound parochial, unoriginal and maybe dull. It is not. Bennett is a wonderful observe A plot summary would make this short, but perfectly formed novel sound parochial, unoriginal and maybe dull. It is not. Bennett is a wonderful observer and writer of the small-scale aspects that make life real and characters spring to life. He's also pretty good at writing female characters. In fact, by far the weakest character is male: the faultless Henry Mynors.
In many ways, my life is utterly different from Anna's, but in some key ways, I can identify with her more than I might wish to.
This book is rather like a factory Anna visits: "No stage of the manufacture was incredible by itself, but the result was incredible."
This isn't one of his lightly humorous books (The Grand Babylon Hotel and The Card).
Instead, it features a profoundly nasty man, who never lays a finger on anyone or commits any crime.
Setting and Plot
It's as simple as it says on the back of the book: it's set in the English potteries district, in the early 20th century. Anna Tellwright is about to come of age, and lives with her wealthy, miserly, twice-widowed father (Ephraim) and young half sister (Agnes) in a Methodist-dominated town. Ephraim "existed within himself, unrevealed" even to Anna.
Anna is dutiful, naive, lonely: "the peculiarity of her position... awe and pity were equally mingled" and unfamiliarity with social situations mean she is not "a facile talker".
She inherits money, is taken under the wing of the Suttons, is courted by up-and-coming Henry Mynors, still cares about the fate of the less fortunate (Titus Price and his adult son, Willie), and is very unsure of herself. When invited to a sewing party, she is baffled by the etiquette: "Should she arrive early, in which case she would have to talk more, or late, in which case there would be the ordeal of entering a crowded room?" Who of us has not felt a similar dilemma, even with more experience?
However, she is not mistress of her own destiny, and that is where the tension springs from.
What is love?
Anna's stirrings of love, her excitement and uncertainty ring very true: "the main whose arm she could have touched... She had felt happy and perturbed in being so near him... already she knew his face by heart."
She is afraid and excited, and everything looks different, "She saw how miserably narrow, tepid and trickling the stream of her life had been.. Now it gushed forth warm, impetuous and full." She is even tempted to neglect her duty to her family (only in trivial ways).
Henry calms many of her fears: he's wonderful with Agnes, and even with her father - teasing the former, and braving the latter (even daring to ask for more beef).
However, just when she should be happiest, she feels "no ineffable rapture, not ecstatic bliss." Despite her yearnings, Anna lacks passion, whether for a man or for God (see the Revival section, below). She tries to live as if she has it for both, hoping it will become true.
I also questioned Henry's love for Anna: he seems too perfect and, given his strong religious faith, oddly unperturbed by her lack of conviction (though her dedication is admirable).
Anna's love of her sister is unquestioned and unquestioning, but her feelings about her manipulative father are more complex: "The worst tyrannies of her father never dulled the sense of her duty to him."
Ephraim Tellwright is a former Methodist preacher, but he's a very un-Christian emotional bully. The love of money is perhaps the root of his evil. He is a canny investor, a harsh landlord, and spends almost nothing, so his wealth has accumulated, and he's very proud of how well he's managed Anna's inheritance before she came of age.
He is shrewd and crafty. He simultaneously minimises his donation to the Sunday school and entraps his indebted tenant by promising to match the tenant's donation. He will also "promise repairs [only] in change for payment of arrears which he knew would never be paid". When he hands Anna's inheritance over, he really does no such thing. He makes her pay cheques in, forces her to write letters against her will, and ensures she daren't ask for a penny for herself. When she wants her cheque book, so she can buy a few clothes to go on holiday with the Suttons, he refuses.
Anna's own attitude to money is very different: she makes all her own clothes, has no servant or carriage, and uses nothing on her hair. "The arrival of money out of space, unearned, unasked, was a disturbing experience." "She wanted to test the actuality of this apparent dream by handling a coin and causing it to vanish over counters." The trouble is, she's now too rich to ask her father for any of his money, but she can't use her own, as he's tied her into a business agreement with someone. On holiday with the Suttons, she is startled by their "amazing habit of always buying the best of everything."
It's not only money that makes him mean. Anna and Agnes live in fear of his temper. His "terrible displeasure permeated the whole room like an ether, invisible but carrying vibrations to the heart." The mindset behing his bullying misogyny are chillingly exposed: "The women of the household were the natural victims of their master" who had "certain rights over the self-respect, the happiness, the peace of the defenceless souls set under him." When she is engaged, he claims her suitor is only after her money.
Anna has been raised a Methodist and teaches in Sunday School, but feels like an outsider as she's never had a conversion experience. Guilt is not just a prerogative of Roman Catholics.
There is excitement at the prospect of a campaign, featuring a famous preacher with an "ineffably wicked" past: "the faint rumour of that dead wickedness clung to his name like a piquant odour".
In preparation, Anna visits the families of Sunday School children and "found joy in the uncongenial and ill-performed task", both as a penance and because Henry asked her to do it.
In the service, he "had two audiences: God and the congregation". The mesmerising techniques, Biblical exhortations, emotional pressure, guilt, and concern are carefully described: I didn't quite believe (in) him, but wasn't certain that he was a charlatan either: "he had an extraordinary histrionic gift and he used it with imagination".
Poor Anna "was in despair at her own predicament and the sense of sin was not more strong than the sense of being confused and publicly shamed... She heaped up all the wickedness of a lifetime... and found horrid pleasure in the exaggeration... She had never doubted... Jesus died on the cross to save her soul... What then was lacking?" She is tormented by whether to go forward as a penitent, and more, by the knowledge she can't.
When she most needs faith, it fails her. She can't turn to Henry, because he is too pure
I have been Anna. I know all those services, techniques and
feelings. I am now free (despite a painful glimpse back, via this book), and I wanted her to be too.
The key part of the plot is a factory, now owned by Anna, that is rented by Titus Price, a feckless man, deep in debt, with a sweet but ineffectual son, Willie.
Ephraim is keen for Anna to keep squeezing them for the rent arrears - a task Anna is not comfortable with. Worse still, (view spoiler)[Ephraim adds further pressure and threats behind her back. When Titus commits suicide, Anna blames her father and herself - even though the inquest finds other factors, such as embezzling church money. (hide spoiler)] From this, everything in Anna's life is jeopardised.
Gasp! I didn't expect or want a clichéd happy ending or a shockingly tragic one, but I wasn't expecting this, and I'm not sure how I'd describe it (a bit of both?), so I won't!
Anna believes "A woman's life is always a renunciation" (not necessarily of what the reader expects). I don't think Arnold Bennett believes it should be, though. He was a man ahead of his time.
The men (some shirtless) working alongside women in the pottery works was a surprise. More surprising still, was good Christians deliberately providing opportunity for a couple (not even engaged) to spend time alone together. Mind you, she did wear a "skirt which showed three inches of ankle"!
Maybe my history is at fault, though; this was published in 1902, so it just sneaks into the Edwardian, rather than Victorian category.
Quotes - Scenery and Atmosphere
Most of Bennett's books are set in the area he knew well. He portrays small town politics, industry, rivalries, and even makes factories seem beautiful.
"Burning ironstone glowed with all the strange colours of decadence... unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime... enchanted air... a romantic scene"!
The towns are "forbidding of aspect - sombre, hard-featured, uncouth; and the vaporous poison of their ovens and chimneys had soiled and shrivelled the surrounding country" to a "gaunt and ludicrous travesty of rural charms". This then segues into something rather different: "embrace the whole smoke-girt amphitheatre... this disfigurement is merely an episode in the unending warfare of man and nature and calls for no contrition... Nature is repaid for some of her notorious cruelties."
Factories can be cruel, though. The women paintresses, a few "die of lead poisoning - a fact which adds pathos to their frivolous charm. One paints nothing but circles, the "summit of monotony... stupendous phenomenon of absolute sameness."
Of those visiting a new park, "people going up to criticize and enjoy this latest outcome of municipal enterprise... housewives whose pale faces, as of prisoners free only for a while, showed a naive and timorous pleasure in this unusual diversion; young women made glorious by richly coloured stuffs and carrying themselves with the defiant independence of good wages... a small well-dressed group whose studious repudiation of the crowd betrayed a conscious eminence of rank."
* Leaving Sunday School, the teachers "gradually dropping the pedagogic pose, and happy in the virtual sensation of a duty accomplished."
* An ageing and charitable woman's "bodily frame long ago proved inadequate to the ceaseless demands of a spirit of indefatigably altruistic, and her continuance in activity was notable illustration of the dominion of mind over matter."
* A young woman of 20 "had the lenient curves of absolute maturity."
* A man of 30 had "the elasticity of youth with the firm wisdom of age."
* A spinster "was lovable, but had never been loved... found compensation for the rigour of destiny in gossip, as innocent as indiscreet."
* "It seemed a face for the cloister... resigned and spiritual melancholy peculiar to women who through the error of destiny have been born into a wrong environment."
* "unconsciously-acquired arrogance of one who had always been accustomed to deference."
* "the quiet enchantment of reverie. Her mind... ranged voluptuously free."
* An old dresser: "Seventy years of continuous polishing by a dynasty of priestesses of cleanliness" looked "as though it had never been new."
* "The double happiness of present and anticipated pleasure."
* Bad news spreads: "All knew of the calamity, and had received from it a new interest in life."
Old fashioned spellings:
Notes are private!
Aug 18, 2014
Sep 03, 2014
Aug 18, 2014
Aug 01, 2009
An exquisite little novel in which not much happens until the end, and yet, due to storms of all kinds, the whole world of each protagonist changes ir An exquisite little novel in which not much happens until the end, and yet, due to storms of all kinds, the whole world of each protagonist changes irrevocably.
Flux, Transition, Contrast, Stagnation
"Reality seemed to have lost its accustomed hold, just as the day wavered uncertainly between night and morning."
Everyone lives between land and water, but each is also caught in some other dichotomy: childhood or adulthood; togetherness or separation; comfort or poverty; in or out of love; life or death; artistry or manual labour; dreams or cold reality.
"Decision is torment for anyone with imagination" because "you multiply the things you might have done and now never can". But that can lead to paralysis.
Parallels in my Life
I don't relate to the specific circumstances, but the paralysis of indecision, when torn between two thoughts or situations is something I often struggle with. Sometimes it leads to an impulsive decision (which I may or may not regret), other times I try to pass the decision to someone else, or just avoid making it altogether. I feel I should be able to learn from this beautiful book, but it suggests diagnosis (which I'd already worked out), but no prescription. And that's fine.
Setting and Atmosphere
It is set in "the Reach", a small community of barge-dwellers in London, around 1962. The houseboats are permanently moored; their movement is limited to bobbing up and down on the tide.
The residents are very much a community, and yet they have almost nothing in common, other than the fact they are all adrift (even the cat), living in a never-world between land and water - literally, and in a more profound, psychological sense.
"The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water would have liked to be more respectable than they were... but a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up."
It vividly conjures the vicissitudes of the sights and sounds of the water and weather, aided by a splattering of boaty jargon. "The river's most elusive hours, when darkness lifts off darkness, and from one minute to another the shadows declare themselves as houses or craft at anchor."
All the characters are Characters. As are the five boats. In fact, tradition dictates that owners are addressed by the name of their boat, though that doesn't happen all the time, and one owner thwarts it by changing the name of his boat to match his own name.
The main characters are Nenna (only 32, but with daughters Martha, 12, and Tilda, 6); Maurice, a young gay man making ends meet as a prostitute; Willis, an old marine painter, whose boat is in need of sprucing up; boat-proud Woodrow (Woodie); and Richard, a natural leader, ex-navy, now working in insurance, with the biggest, smartest boat.
All have troubles of some sort, though Nenna's are most evident. She's depressed and probably has other mental health issues: when she's alone, her thoughts "took the form of a kind of perpetual magistrates' hearing", perpetually having to defend her action and inaction regarding her marriage. Meanwhile, she is over-reliant on her daughters, who no longer attend school. Her "character was faulty, but she had an instinct to see what made other people unhappy".
"Was there not, on the whole of Battersea Reach, a couple, married or unmarried, living together in the ordinary way?"
Tilda is perhaps the least convincing character, which is a shame, as it could be fixed by making her 10, rather than 6. Growing up in the Reach, she is understandably fascinated by and knowledgeable about the river; she "had the air of something aquatic, a demon from the depths", and "respected the water and knew that one could die within sight of the Embankment". But her language and insight don't always sound right: "Do you think Ma's mind is weakening?" "It's not the kind who inherit the earth... They get kicked in the teeth".
In contrast, Martha is "armed at all points against the possible disappointments of her life, conscious of the responsibilities of protecting her mother and sister, worried a the gaps in her education... she had forgotten for some time the necessity for personal happiness."
(view spoiler)[Nenna often chats long into the night with Maurice, but there is a frisson between her and Richard. Willis' barge (Dreadnaught) sinks, though he escapes, and is put up by Woodie. Eventually, Nenna plucks up courage to visit her husband, Edward. He's a wastrel, recently returned from a failed attempt to make money in South America, and won't come to the boat. (Meanwhile, Martha gets friendly with a 16-year old German, Heinrich, staying for 24 hours, as a friend of a friend of Nenna's sister.) She hoped to spend the night and win him back, but things don't go well, and she walks home, where Richard is waiting (his wife, Laura, has recently left him properly) and takes her out in a dinghy, before returning to the Reach. We later discover they did go into a cabin together. Meanwhile, Laura's wealthy sister is over from Canada, and wants to take her and the girls to start a new life there. But Richard is attacked by Harry, an acquaintance of Maurice (who uses Maurice's boat to store stolen goods) and is severely injured. His wife comes back to take care of him. Meanwhile, Edward comes looking for Nenna, but ends up drinking with Maurice, before trying to board Nenna's barge (she's not in, because of the storm) and possibly falling into the cold and turbulent waters.
Then it ends! I like untidy, open endings, but this was SO open, I was aghast. Do Edward and Maurice survive? Does Richard stay with Laura? Do Nenna and the girls go to Canada, and if not, do she and Richard have a chance, or even she and Edward? Will Harry be caught, and if so, what are the implications for Maurice (if he lived)? What about the homeless and penniless Willis - he surely can't go on living with Woodie? (hide spoiler)]
* "That crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are."
* The advantages of youth, "Tilda cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness." Also, "Her heart didn't rule her memory... she was spared that inconvenience."
* A petty criminal "had no expression, as though expressions were surplus to requirements."
* "Tenderly responsive to the self-deception of others, he was unfortunately too well able to understand his own."
* "Martha bruised so easily. A princess, unknown to all about her, she awaited the moment when these bruises would reveal her heritage."
* "Many enterprises in Chelsea which survived entirely by selling antiques to each other."
* A man, propositioning a woman on a street, "smelled of loneliness".
* "The kind of man who has two clean handkerchiefs on him at half past three in the morning."
* "She would go with him to the end of the world if his outboard motor was always going to start like that." ;)
* A young German (ex) aristocrat had "an upbringing designed to carry him through changes of regime and frontier, possible loss of every worldly possession... had made him totally self-contained and able with the sunny smile and formal handshake of the gymnast to set almost anybody at their ease."
* "The ship's cat was in every way appropriate for the Reach. She habitually moved in a kind of nautical crawl... Through years of attempting to lick herself clean, for she had never quite lost her self-respect, Stripey had become as thickly coated with mud inside as out. She was in a perpetual process of readjustment... to tides and seasons... The resulting uncertainty as to whether she was coming or going had made her, to some extent, mentally unstable."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Aug 08, 2014
Aug 17, 2014
Aug 08, 2014
May 01, 2005
A disparate collection of short stories, connected by considerations of ageing, though the settings (geographical and historical) and style vary consi A disparate collection of short stories, connected by considerations of ageing, though the settings (geographical and historical) and style vary considerably. The other common themes are secrecy, lies and self-delusion.
Some contrast different life stages, whereas others focus on someone already getting on. It's not exactly uplifting, but it's not gloomy either.
Why this, why now?
My book acquisition is largely accidental, or rather, I browse second-hand bookshops for authors that I want to read, books I've heard of, or titles that catch my eye. Having bought a book, it might be days, weeks or years until I read it, triggered by a mix of what I've just read (whether I want something similar or contrasting) and what I've seen here on GR.
When I came across this book, I had read a recent Barnes that I loved (The Sense of An Ending, reviewed here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) and a very early one that showed promise, but was not great (Staring at the Sun, reviewed here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...). However, the fact I picked this, when short stories are not my usual fare, rather than one of several of his novels at the same stall, was perhaps a subconscious acknowledgement of my looming half-century. Turning 30 and 40 meant nothing much, but much as I hate to admit it, I think 50 may feel a bit different. These stories are more about old age than middle age, but they chimed somewhat for me.
A Short History of Hairdressing
The stages of a contemporary British boy/man's life, encapsulated in his different experiences and thoughts about having his hair cut. It's subtle and poignant, and the thoughts of the child are particularly convincing, such as musing that "Things you didn't know about, or weren't meant to know about, usually turned out to be rude".
On the cusp of puberty, he makes his first solo trip to the barber. He is scared of perverts, and, to some extent, the barber: "He didn't like not being allowed to be afraid" (in contrast to the dentist) and is anxious because "you were never sure of the rules", even though he's confident that boys aren't expected to tip. He's also worried about being electrocuted by the clippers, but is reassured when he notices the barber's rubber shoes. "He submitted to the cold smoothness of the scissors - always cold even when they weren't."
As a young adult, Gregory's anxieties are different. He still doesn't tip, but now it's because "He thought it a reinforcement of the deferential society". Rather than thinking the barber's pole "rude", he's fully aware of the history of surgeon-barbers. When he accedes to "buy something for the weekend", he is "complicit at last with the hairdresser".
As an old man, "He still... couldn't slide easily into the posture", but "He could do this stuff, customer banter... It had only taken him 25 years to get the right tone". (view spoiler)[He is relaxed (and prepared for) tipping and finally has the confidence to decline to see the rear view of his haircut. (hide spoiler)]
The Story of Mats Israelson
The social structure of a small, remote, nineteenth century Swedish town is delightfully and wryly described. People gossip about nothing, but when there IS something, "Gossip noted... Gossip suggested... Gossip wondered... Gossip decided that the worse interpretation of events was usually the safest and, in the end, the truest."
In church, some pews are "reserved from generation to generation, regardless of merit", whereas the horse stalls outside cannot be bequeathed and are "for the six most important men in the neighbourhood". The stalls bear not labels, "but even so, we know our places. There is no other life.".
So it's no surprise that this is a story of forbidden longing and lost opportunity for happiness, lived out by the protagonists, but paralleled in the mythologised story of Mats. A woman is "divided between not loving a man who deserved it, and loving one who did not... Though she took no account of legends, she had allowed herself to spend half her life in a frivolous dream."
(view spoiler)[Anders Boden manages the sawmill, has a horrid, sarcastic wife, and falls in love with an incomer. She is drawn to him, but falls pregnant by her husband, and realises she is stuck with him. They occasionally meet on a ferry and, knowing she prefers true stories (she says she has no imagination) he polishes the story of Mats Israelson,so he can take her to the mine where it happened. When she says she'd like to go there one day it "had been a much more dangerous remark than 'At night I dream of Venice'.") Years later, she is summoned to his deathbed near the mine. They misunderstand each other, all their planned words are unsaid, and both are hurt. (hide spoiler)]
The Things You Know
Set in contemporary USA, two elderly ladies chat at their monthly meetup in a restaurant. One "talked far too much about getting old" and had undyed hair "so natural it looked false". The other's hair "was an improbably bright straw, and seemed not to care that it was unconvincing". Each silently criticises the other and avoids saying what she really means: it's almost two separate conversations, with each woman quietly trying to outdo or undermine her fellow diner
Each knows a secret about the other, that the one affected does not. (view spoiler)[Merril does not know, or is in denial about, her late husband being the "campus groper", and Janice does not know that hers was gay. (hide spoiler)] "Knowing this gave Merril a sense of superiority, but not of power."
Are they really friends, or just allies?
Back to 20th century Britain and a retired soldier says goodbye to his wife to go on his annual trip to London for a regimental dinner, organised like a military campaign and (view spoiler)[a rendezvous with his mistress (hide spoiler)]. He considers his life and gradually changing abilities in a detached way.
(view spoiler)[When he turns up at his mistress' house, he discovers she was a prostitute and has died. He can't perform with the substitute As he had given money to his "mistress", coupled with some of the things she'd said, he surely knew - at some level. (hide spoiler)]
An old playwright is surprised when his once-banned play is about to be staged. A young actress is the driving force, but she wants to play one of the minor characters.
Gradually, he feels the actress really IS the very embodiment of his creation (view spoiler)[and falls in love with her (hide spoiler)].
However, the story is cloudy. The unnamed narrator is unsure of the facts, saying "letters have not survived" and "his diary was later burned" - not that they'd have helped because apparently they weren't accurate anyway!
"He was a connoisseur of the if-only. So they did not travel. They travelled in the past conditional." Time does not always heal pain, but "a trip back in the painless past conditional... anaesthetizes pain." His final gift is "a false memory".
This first-person narrator could almost be one of Alan Bennett's "Talking Heads".
He has always enjoyed going to London concerts, but now his pleasure comes from getting angry with noisy or unappreciative audience members, so that his partner will no longer come too. Incidents escalate in a rather comical way.
The balance is that (view spoiler)[his partner is a cyclist who takes similar pleasure at berating bad car drivers (hide spoiler)].
A wealthy French man who is a gambler and food-lover gives up gambling, and he and his wife get fat. She chokes on her food, he feels guilty, and loses interest in life.
He is rejuvenated by a fundraising scheme to build public baths in which the last survivor of the 40 original donors gets a good pension. The gambling instinct kicks in, and he takes great care of his own health (diet of fruit and bark), and a morbid interest in the declining health of the others - even though many are friends. But "what is the reason for living if it is only to outlive others?"
There is a cycle of fate and revenge: (view spoiler)[he pays for weekly sex sessions with a young woman at the baths, allegedly for his health. He tells a friend, who tells him to break it off, but not why. It turns out, she is the friend's illegitimate daughter, but she is now pregnant, with her own illegitimate child. (hide spoiler)]
A strangely self-referential story: in 1986, and old woman writes a series of letters to Julian Barnes about co-incidences and literature.
She also writes about the tyranny of living in an old people's home, where everyone else is mad, deaf or both. Looking forward, rather than back, gets harder as you age.
We never see his replies, though she refers to them. When she dies, he asks for his letters to be returned, but is told they've already been disposed of. Is this pure or partial fiction, and does it matter?
A terminally ill dentist with dementia is read cookery books by his second wife. It's almost erotic, but really to trigger related memories. He makes occasional uncharacteristic crude sexual demands, but she doesn't take it personally, quietly loving him and easing his passing for them both.
The Fruit Cage
A middle aged son airs his worries about his parents. Their health seems OK, but their are tensions in their relationship.
It turns out to be a story about (view spoiler)[an adult coping with parents splitting up, in part, because one has been having an affair. But this echoes back to awkwardness about their relationship, going back many years. She has been abusing him for years, and even after he moves in with his mistress, she still has the power. A final assault leaves him brain damaged. The women visit on alternate days, and he seems to think each is his wife. (hide spoiler)]
Back to Sweden at the custom of the 19th and 20th centuries, for the memories of an old composer who knew all the greats of classical music, but was not himself a great. He is lonely and confused, "Nowadays, when my friends desert me, I can no longer tell whether it is because of my success or my failure."
"Music begins where words cease. What happens when music ceases? Silence." Yet his wife and five daughters are banned from making music at home. "My music is molten ice. In its movement you may detect its frozen beginnings, in its sonorities you may detect its initial silence."
Meaning of the title
According to one of the stories, "Among the Chinese, the lemon is the symbol of death", and a character ends up "calling for a lemon" when he's had enough of life.
* "A glutinous whine from the radio."
* Unattainable love, "She was unprepared for the constant, silent, secret pain."
* "Were you as young as you felt, or as old as you looked?"
* "Pleasures not as strong as they had once been... so you drank less, enjoyed it more."
* "Every love... is a real disaster when you give yourself over to it entirely."
* "After the age of forty... the basis of life: Renunciation." and then talks about "the voluptuousness of renunciation".
* "If we [21st century] know more about sex, they [20th?] know more about love."
* "The village shop is 'good for essentials' which means that people use it to stop it closing down."
* "The Four Last Things of Modern Life: making a will, planning for old age, facing death, and not being able to believe in an afterlife."
* "A brisk woman... who gave off a quiet reek of high principle."
* "Geese would be beautiful if cranes did not exist."
Worst, and lastly, "Cheer up! Death is round the corner."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Jul 22, 2014
Aug 08, 2014
Jul 22, 2014
Feb 07, 2002
I have finally read a Murakami. I picked this up on a market stall and didn't realise it was part of a series until I listed it on GR and saw "The Rat I have finally read a Murakami. I picked this up on a market stall and didn't realise it was part of a series until I listed it on GR and saw "The Rat, #4", but it works as a standalone story, albeit an intriguingly odd one. In conjures exciting unease and bafflement. It is a book of paradoxes and uncertainty, leaving me satisfied with being left, in some ways, unsatisfied.
What sort of story?
Genre labels can be useful, but can also be an irrelevant distraction. However, with this book, I found myself repeatedly wondering what type of story it was. By the end, I was still unsure, but glad of the tension caused by doubt.
At various times, this was magical-realism, murder mystery, sci-fi, political thriller, romance (not too much, thankfully!), Kafkaesque, premature mid-life crisis story, surrealist, spiritual allegory, horror/ghost story, hints of Lolita, and the narrator likens a high-tech hotel to something out of Star Wars... It might have been easier to consider what it was not.
Quirk of the '80s
It's a strange time to read a book like this: it was published, and apparently set, in 1988, which is recent enough that it feels more or less contemporary. However, that was just before Google, laptops, mobile phones etc, which means the protagonists do not have the opportunities one now takes for granted.
Set it now, and the plot would need tweaking, but in 50 years, it will be historical enough for no one to notice. Reading it now, gave it an intriguing edge that added to the general sense of shifting reality.
Connectedness and (un)reality
Connectedness is the clearest theme of the book (and one that links it to David Mitchell, a known fan of Murakami, especially Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas).
There is perhaps unintended (or prescient?) irony in the fact that a novel that is all about connectness was written and set just before the world became dramatically more connected.
Ambiguity about what is real is the other thread: we assume the narrator is reliable (he's a journalist), but there are visions of various kinds, films, vague memories, a bit of mind reading. What is real, and what is not? As things get really weird, the narrator asks, "was the sickness in here or out there?"
Plot and Meaning
The unnamed narrator is a divorced man in his mid-30s; a freelance journalist, mostly writing restaurant reviews - a job he describes as "Shovelling snow. You know, cultural snow."
It opens with him talking about The Dolphin Hotel, and how he often dreams of it after a previous girlfriend, Kiki, took him there, then disappeared. It was a strange place: "The Dolphin Hotel was conceptually sorry... Normalness it lacked... Its corners caked with unfulfilled dreams." Four years on, he feels as if she's calling him to return, so he does. In its place, he finds the swish new Hotel Dauphin.
Dabbling in his past brings him into contact with Gotunda, a high school class mate, who is now a successful (but unfulfilled, divorced and working to pay debts and alimony) actor. They become close friends, which they hadn't been at school. Other key characters are Yumiyoshi, a pretty hotel receptionist, and Yuki, a bright thirteen year old rich drop-out, largely ignored by her divorced parents.
Characters, plot lines and reality twist and tangle, aided by dream-like visions, a portal to another dimension of reality, and a character with mild psychic abilities.
The title relates to an instruction given to the narrator quite early and that seems as if it will be the key to everything, or at least something, but nothing really comes of it (more details in spoiler).
All the way through, and especially towards the end, the narrator is musing on fate and destiny, and looking for meaning in all this - as is the reader. It never really comes, but I think that's rather the point. Had Murakami tied it all together with some ghastly homily, I think it would have ruined the book. After all, a recurring line is " What was that all about?", uttered by Kiki in a much-watched film.
In more detail: (view spoiler)[
Yumi and then the narrator accidentally (and separately) find themselves in a parallel world, in the Old Dolphin Hotel, where they meet the old owner, who the narrator nicknames Sheep Man because of all the pictures and books about sheep. He resisted selling up, and only gave in on condition the new hotel retained the name. He tells the narrator "Thisisyourplace. It'sthenkot. It'stiedtoeverything. Thisisyourworld" and that he (Sheep Man) works hard "Tokeepthings - fromfalllingapart. Tokeepyoufromforgetting." He stresses, "Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays." It is not the place of the dead, and it is real, "Butit'snottheonlyreality."
As well as being drawn to Kiki and wondering what happened to her, he fancies Yumi. He also discovers that Kiki had a bit part in a film of Gotunda's ("Unrequited Love", that the narrator watches obsessively) because Gotunda was a client and Kiki was one of the call girls at a secretive and very high-end agency.
Through Yumi, the narrator gets to know Yuki, whose flighty photographer mother had left behind at the hotel to travel abroad! He took back to her home in Tokyo and keeps a (mostly) paternal eye on her. Their relationship ought to be creepy, especially when he comments how pretty she is, but it's actually rather sweet and innocent. Even her parents think so, as they each (separately) get him to take more charge of her.
Yuki has also seen Sheep Man, though by some sort of mental connection to the narrator, rather than going through the portal.
Gotunda calls the agency to get a couple of girls for him and the narrator. The latter has Mei, who he quizzes about the missing Kiki, but she knows nothing useful. A few days later, he is arrested for her murder and interrogated in a most unorthodox way, slightly reminiscent of Kafka's The Trial, which he had been reading the night before. He denies ever having met her, not wanting to tarnish Gotunda's reputation.
Yuki's rich father (Makimura) pulls strings to get the narrator released from interrogation and suggests he takes Yuki to visit her mother (Amé), currently in Hawaii with her new partner (Dick).
In one dip to the other world, Kiki shows the narrator a room with six skeletons, one of which has a single arm. Later, when a one-armed man he knows dies, he realises they represent people close to him who have died, and fears for the lives of Gotunda, Yuki and Yumi. Another death seems to confirm his theory, though we never know who the sixth is (maybe the narrator himself).
While in Hawaii, another prostitute turns up (June), sent from the same agency, but by Makimura. However, when Gotunda later enquires about her, he's told she'd disappeared three months earlier.
Yuki gets spookily sick when they borrow Gotunda's Maserati, and when she sees him and Kiki in the film, is so unwell, she has to leave the cinema. (view spoiler)[She says that the actor (Gotunda) killed the actress (Kiki) in real life and that she "saw" it. Later, when the narrator asks Gotunda if he killed Kiki or Mei, Gotunda is unsure about Kiki (he's not certain which reality it might have been in), but says he did kill Mei because she asked him to) - yet the narrator overlooks this and plans a trip together! (hide spoiler)].
More visions, more possible deaths, more crossings over and shadows, finally get round to visiting Yumi again, and reality more blurred than ever. The end!
Surprisingly few, for me:
* "Financial dealings have practically become a religious activity."
* "You can now enjoy hybrid styles of morality."
* "You leave things to an interior designer and it ends up looking like this. Something you want to photograph, not live in."
* "Reality receded until you can't tell who's sane and who' not."
* "Amé didn't give anything. She only took. She consumed those around her to sustain herself... Her talent was manifested in a powerful gravitational pull."
* "The passage of time wasn't a practical component in her life."
* "Her ears had special power. They were like some great whirlpool of fate sucking me in."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Jul 04, 2014
Jul 19, 2014
Jul 04, 2014
Aug 27, 1996
I hadn't read any Updike for years, the premise of this one was appealing (a promiscuous priest, sent away to consider the conflict between his sexual I hadn't read any Updike for years, the premise of this one was appealing (a promiscuous priest, sent away to consider the conflict between his sexual shenanigans and his faith), it was only £2.99 on a charity stall, and I don't have to like the protagonist to like a book, but this... I didn't enjoy it (2*). It was well-written in many ways (3*), but Tom was just too unpleasant. I tried make allowances for different mores, but whereas his misogyny and homophobia would be understandable in a Victorian, this is set within my lifetime (published 1975).
Plot and Structure
Tom is sent away for a month to a place in the desert for errant priests. There doesn't seem to be any therapy or counselling or anything really: just time away to reflect, and encouragement to play golf and poker ("the Bible above all is banned"). He is asked to write his thoughts each day (maybe the others are, but we don't know) so the book has one chapter for each day, with the four that fall on Sundays being like sermons. He muses on how he came to be there, with smatterings about what he's been up to that day. On the final day, it stops, with a final episode that may or may not be true. He occasionally addresses the centre manager, Ms Prynne, who he hopes is reading it, and whom he fancies. It's wry, irreverent, shameless, and, by his own admission, of dubious accuracy.
The way he analyses his own story as he seeks to justify his actions (twisting the Bible to do so), in part by blaming others, brought Humbert Humbert to mind. There is also an echo of Lolita's famous opening lines, "Oh Alicia, my mistress, my colleague, my adviser, my betrayer." He surmises that "I equate noise with [sexual] vitality" and he's "infatuated with completion", but these are not fully developed insights. Occasionally, he detaches, and slips into the third person, and sometimes likens people in his life to "dolls I can play with".
Tom is very well-read and drops lots of literary names in the first half, especially John Barth (who he sees as the epitome of masculinity). Mention of John Dickinson-Carr's idea of many locked rooms is very pertinent to the way Tom tries to compartmentalise his life, but gets only a passing mention. Later, it's his wife Jane who wants "symmetry and enclosure" by having a door to separate the foyer and living room.
(view spoiler)[He starts an affair with Alicia, his organist, and tries to pair up his wife (Jane) and curate (Ned). This doesn't work ("I thought they might at least fornicate out of conversational boredom"), and Alicia ends up having an affair with Ned, which makes Tom very jealous. He turns to Frankie, but her strong faith makes him impotent, so he has numerous affairs with other parishioners and those who come for counselling. Alicia tells Jane, but somehow Jane takes the upper hand in that discussion and with Tom; briefly, their sex life is wakened. When he sacks Alicia, with Ned's support, she tells one of the church elders. (hide spoiler)]All except Ned have children, yet they barely feature, even from a logistical angle. Tom's own teenage sons are an unpleasant nuisance, "Society... sets a term to childhood; of parenthood there is no riddance."
I was raised an Anglican, but have no faith in any higher power now. Nevertheless, the way Tom twists the Bible to show "adultery is our inherent condition" and "not a choice to be avoided; it is a circumstance to be embraced" made me oddly uncomfortable. He goes further, saying people find themselves in adultery (which is fair enough), "stripped of all the false uniforms society has assigned them... The sacrament of marriage... exists but as a precondition for the sacrament of adultery". "Free love is not a scandal but a tautology."
He is uncomfortable with the word "love" but thinks it "the spiritual twin of gravity". At home (view spoiler)[after the novelty of the revelation of his affair (hide spoiler)], "weightlessness prevailed".
His persistent impotence with the only lover with any real Christian faith provides suggests he hasn't totally lost longing for his own, "I would greet my impotence as the survivor within me of faith, a piece of purity amid all this relativistic concupiscence."
Misogyny, Sexualising & Homophobia
After years as a conventional priest, husband and father, Tom strays once, and after that, he becomes insatiable. He's largely untroubled by guilt, but he's shocked at women who are similarly free of it. His casual demeaning thoughts about women infuse the book:
* "His wife, dear sainted sloven."
* His mother "was insignificant, timid, mousily miscontented."
* "There is this to be said for cold women: they stick. So beneath our raptures I heard the tearing silk of infidelity" (even though he's the one who is committing adultery).
* "I resent feedback... as a middle-aged woman resents the mirror."
* "The typewriter that like a dull wife has grown grudgingly responsive to my touch."
* "Babies and guilt, women are built for lugging."
He rather relishes exposure of his first affair, because it makes the logistics so much easier.
As sex, rather than God, becomes his world; he sees it everywhere:
* The "flirtatious brushing" of a "naked" branch.
* Typing sounds like "ejaculations of clatter".
* "Newsletters... that pour through a minister's slot like urine from a cow's vulva"!
In footnotes, he draws attention to his numerous Freudian typos.
Better, and more subtle, was the aside that he first saw his wife when she was standing "beneath a blooming fruit tree, a small apple or crabapple."
Outwardly, Tom is uncomfortable around men he suspects are gay ("the sidling fear that any unannounced homosexual puts into me") and assumes they're all feminine with pederast tendencies. He even intuits sexual orientation from how men approach putts and holes in golf. However, there are several suggestions that he feels some attraction to Ned, though is partly a manifestation of jealousy. There is a really weird (trans?) passage where he says one of the reasons he avoids pyjama bottoms (other than ease of masturbatory access) is "to send an encouraging signal to the mini-skirted female who, having bitten a poisoned apple at the moment of my father's progenitive orgasm, lies suspended within me". He also says "Though I like myself in drag, the church is no costume ball", though this comes across as a joke.
To reinforce his general bigotry, there's a casual reference to the "tribal chauvinism of the Jews".
Furniture (and the rooms it is in) is explicitly important to Tom, and is often described in delicate detail; he sees more of God in man made objects than the natural world. As a child, the family moved many times, and the furniture was a reassuring constant. "My father's carpentry opened the furniture of my childhood to me and made it religious" and "I had no choice but to follow my father into the ministry; the furniture made me do it."
* "The room still nudges me with its many corners of strangeness."
* He's always been happy in cars, "The first piece of furniture I could drive."
In particular, he always sees stripes on the stairs, suggesting "the great brown back of a slave" and "my own captivity". More poetically, "The oaken staircase flayed with moonbeams."
Furniture is significant in his breakups as well: when one lover leaves, he likens it to removing furniture from the church and with another, he's more concerned that she might lose her rich husband's beautiful furniture than anything else.
* "Knives of light fall upon the grapefruit and glass with an almost audible splintering of brightness."
* "The faint rubbed spot on the surface of silence that indicates where voices have been erased."
* "We played in each other like children in puddles."
* "How the world sparkled now that my faith was decisively lost."
* "Morning sunlight streaming, shade-tinted, dust-enlivened, from windows east and south. Snowcrusts from last week's storm visible through them."
* "From the first Thanksgiving, ours is the piety of the full belly. We pray with our stomachs, while our hands do mischief, and our heads indict the universe."
* "I like her fondness for the subject. We are circumscribed by tangents."
* "The demand for babies isn't what it was, though evolutional inertia maintains the orgasm as bribe."
* "The electric sloshing of television's swill."
* "The man knew how to wear authority's spacesuit"!
Notes are private!
Jul 04, 2014
Jul 04, 2014
Jul 04, 2014
Note the first word of the title: politics. It's important.
The essay demonstrates how politicians use language to persuade and deceive, and conversel Note the first word of the title: politics. It's important.
The essay demonstrates how politicians use language to persuade and deceive, and conversely, how to write factual information in a way that is honest and clear.
There are memorable examples and some good advice.
Unfortunately, many people focus on five of the six rules near the end and try to apply them regardless of context. That was not Orwell's intention, which is why he didn't follow them slavishly in his own writing - including this essay. In fact, he explicitly states:
"I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought."
For the record, those rules (which are NOT for literary contexts) are:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
You can read the whole essay here: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel... ...more
Notes are private!
Jun 28, 2014
Jun 14, 2014
Jun 14, 2014
I really enjoyed this honest, riveting, though-provoking, gently humorous, and profound “autobiography of a confirmed child-free RE [religious educati I really enjoyed this honest, riveting, though-provoking, gently humorous, and profound “autobiography of a confirmed child-free RE [religious education] teacher turned artist-seamstress and step mother of six”.
It has an original approach that works well: rather than being chronological, it is divided into sections that focus on particular people in her life, ending up with herself (there is a timeline at the back). Each section is introduced by one of her poems, and the book has plenty of family photos, as well as pictures of some of her more visual creative work. It’s not a long book, but it doesn’t need to be. By the end, you’ll feel you really know, like, and admire Isobel. Even my mother, who is not one for anything out of the mainstream, did.
The writing is very conversational – in the best way: even though I knew the broad “plot” and some of the anecdotes (the author is a friend), I still found it a compelling page-turner.
Parts of it are quite raw, and the opening is bold (“It’s hard to criticize somebody when they’re dead.”), but despite bereavements, coping with partners with drink problems, and other painful situations, it is never sentimental or mawkish. Instead, she tells it like it is, with dashes of, often self-deprecating, humour.
In some ways, where she is now, is very unexpected compared with where she started in life, and yet there is the sort of foreshadowing that one often thinks belongs only in novels: as a student, Isobel loved living by the sea, and it happened to be in a household where she was the only woman. Now, many years later, she has found happiness living by the sea, and in a household where she is the only woman.
I read mostly fiction, but this feels more honest, intimate, and open-ended than is usual in memoirs. Isobel isn’t afraid to question her actions and reactions and to ask “what if?” about key points in her life. Neither is she afraid to leave some of those questions unanswered. Life isn’t conveniently black and white, and what one knows now shouldn’t be used to apply unfair expectations of one’s younger self.
Ultimately, it’s a brave and positive book: take a chance. Or several. Isobel did, and her life is all the richer for it, finding an unexpected new life that “felt so much closer to the real me”. The only thing still missing is a pet unicorn, but Brent is working on that…
NOTE: Reviewing books by friends might be tricky, but I only write honest reviews. (If I hadn’t thought this was good, I would not have reviewed it at all.)
It’s available on Lulu, a site I’ve ordered from a few times, and always received the correct item promptly:
(Link updated 27 Jan 2015, to go to the second/revised edition.)
Notes are private!
Jun 28, 2014
Jun 28, 2014
Jan 01, 2009
May 05, 2009
I'm not a big fan of short stories, but read these because after the emotion and length of Perdido Street Station, I wanted a total change, and I'd be I'm not a big fan of short stories, but read these because after the emotion and length of Perdido Street Station, I wanted a total change, and I'd been meaning to try another Ishiguro (I enjoyed Remains of the Day in my twenties, but more recently, gave Never Let me Go only 2*)
They were certainly a contrast, and they were perfectly competent, and had a connecting theme (music), but... That is all. I won't be rushing to read any more Ishiguro.
2.5* rounded down to 2*, because Ishiguro is supposed to be better than this.
AS A COLLECTION
All five stories have music as the link between main characters, and in four of them, the main character is a musician. In the fifth, it's shared musical tastes that are the bond.
There is a certain sadness about the central relationship in each story, and several characters make extreme or odd sacrifices for their careers ((view spoiler)[divorcing when they want to be together, plastic surgery, avoiding tuition lest it spoil the innate talent (hide spoiler)]). Two have sections of borderline slapstick comedy, two are set in Piazza San Marco in Venice with the same narrator (though only one of the stories is about him), two feature the same secondary character.
All are told in the first person (though in the final one, the narrator is actually telling the story of an acquaintance, so the first person aspect is more of a gimmick, presumably to link the first and last stories). Reading short stories in quick succession can be a little disorienting, but it's even more so when "I" keeps changing, but the characters' voices are not distinctively different. Then, in the fourth story, we meet a character from the first - but told by a different narrator! David Mitchell does this sort of thing better, in both Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas.
Reviewers more musical than I am, have seen this collection as being like the sweep of an orchestral piece, with variations and recaps, along with the new.
Janeck is a guitarist, who is a ringer for café bands in Piazza San Marco: "A tourist strolling across the square will hear one tune fade out, another fade in, like he's shifting the dial on a radio."
He spots a once-famous US crooner, Tony Gardener, and his rather grumpy wife, Lindy. Tony persuades Jan to accompany him to serenade his wife from a gondola. The reason for this is not what one might expect ((view spoiler)[it's their last holiday before they divorce, so he can make a come-back (hide spoiler)]).
COME RAIN OR COME SHINE
A sad comedy of university friends, about twenty five years later. Ray and Emily bonded over shared taste in music, but she married Charlie, though all three stayed friends. Ray is single and teaches English overseas but regularly goes to stay with Emily and Charlie in their plush London duplex.
On this occasion, Ray finds "his" room unkempt, Charlie highly strung, and Emily discontented. Charlie had invited Ray to keep Emily company while he goes away on business for a couple of days, and also to persuade her not to leave him ((view spoiler)[because in comparison to Ray, Charlie will seem more successful (hide spoiler)]).
It then turns into farce, as one small mistake snowballs into a catalogue of ever more far-fetched episodes.
A singer-songwriter (guitarist) goes to stay with his sister and her husband for the summer, so he can write in between helping them in their café and living rent-free. They are not really fans of his music.
An Elgar-loving Swiss couple come to the café (also musicians), but there is tension between them, and she dislikes the slow service: "this woman was livid with anger. Not the sort that suddenly hits you then drains away. No, this woman, I could tell, had been in a kind of white heat for some time... It's the sort of anger that arrives and stays put... never quite peaking and refusing to find a proper outlet." This triggers what is potentially the funniest incident ((view spoiler)[sending them to the worst hotel in the town (hide spoiler)]), but it happens off-stage.
A supposedly talented, but not very successful tenor sax player is persuaded his lack of success is because of his looks: "Billy's... sexy, bad-guy ugly. You... well, you're dull, loser ugly. The wrong kind of ugly."
Recuperating from plastic surgery in a secret wing of a hotel, he comes to know the ex-wife of a more successful musician. Her route to the top was "The right love affair, the right marriage, the right divorces. All leading to the right magazine covers, the right talk shows." The sort of woman he rather despises.
It's an odd meeting: "She was wearing something that was part night-gown, part cocktail dress... it was at the same time vaguely medical yet glamorous". Both are swathed in facial bandages, so she has no idea what he looks like, and neither can see each other's expressions.
Boredom and bonding over music creates a friendship of a kind, leading to farcical escapades in private areas of the hotel at night, evading security and (view spoiler)[stealing and hiding something (hide spoiler)].
A café saxophonist in Piazza San Marco spots a former colleague and tells what happened to him a few years earlier: he's a Hungarian classically-trained cellist, and he was taken under the wings of an older American woman. This virtuoso cellist recognised his talent and gave him personal master classes. There is a bit of a twist, though not the one you expect ((view spoiler)[she is a "virtuoso" in theory - she can't actually play because she had to protect her gift from being destroyed by well-intentioned but inadequate teachers (hide spoiler)]. I thought this was the weakest story.
Notes are private!
Jun 11, 2014
Jun 13, 2014
Jun 11, 2014
Sep 26, 2013
Jun 05, 2014
This is explicitly based on Arnold Bennett's wonderful Old Wives's Tale (my review), with a contemporary British Asian twist. There's no need to be fa This is explicitly based on Arnold Bennett's wonderful Old Wives's Tale (my review), with a contemporary British Asian twist. There's no need to be familiar with OWT - in fact, I suggest you read that rather than this!
It's had pretty good reviews in the broadsheet press, and in terms of plot, it certainly does what it claims, but it lacks the warmth and writing skill of Bennett, it attempts more humour, and demonstrates every Asian and shop-owning stereotype you can think of. The end result is like the novelisation of the BBC sketch show Goodness Gracious Me.
There is some character development (only a bit), but exposition is clunky, and the plot is borrowed, so Sanghera is not an author I'll look out for in future.
Note to non-Brits: In the UK, "Asian" is not derogatory and refers to those whose families hail from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is not used for those from SE Asia, China, Japan etc.
It's a story of three generations of a Sikh family who run a corner shop (convenience store) in Wolverhampton, narrated by Arjan, the thirty-something grandson of the original owners, Mr and Mrs Bains.
The chapters alternate between the modern day and his mother's childhood and young adulthood, both strands being triggered by a death, leaving a woman at the helm. The first couple of times, the switching wasn't very clear, but in the end, it more or less worked.
The final two chapters tie up the story with an unconvincing and overly dramatic surprise and then what would be a predictable finish were it not for what just happened in the previous chapter. All very rushed and unconvincing.
CASTE, CLASS and RACE
This book (unlike OWT) is primarily about fitting in, and not fitting in: the eternal immigrant story, compounded by issues of race, Indian caste, and, towards the end, British class. Integration versus identity, and to what extent compromise can be hypocritical. Sadly, it doesn't really have any great or original insights on these tricky but important issues.
Similarly, racism is experienced in many ways, by Asians and, to a lesser extent, from Asians. No surprise, but the characters' reactions to it were neither inured nor intimidated and somehow just didn't feel likely (but what do I know?).
"The need to serve customers means you rarely sit down together [to eat], and consequently have little sense of yourselves as a social unit." Given that they live above (and in!) the shop, and all help out there, even as children, this is the opposite of what one might assume. It could be the key to so much. But it didn't seem to be.
ASIAN CULTURE - and WOMEN
Several characters resist aspects of their culture and religion, and some embrace it more at stressful times. Some of the superstitions Mrs Bains (and later, her elder daughter, Kamaljit) fall back on are easy to mock, even though they gain comfort from them.
Parallels were drawn between Punjabi culture and Jewish and royal life, and at times, the exposition was annoying and unnaturally unsubtle and yet I don't feel I've learned much.
What should have been the most interesting strand concerns the role and relationships of women (Bennett managed it a century earlier). All the female characters struggle with this to some extent: who to marry and how, how much education girls should have, how much to defer to one's husband, attitudes of dress, tensions of sisterhood, but most especially, the two determined widows who run the shop at different times (which tallies with Sikh teaching of gender equality).
Similarly, the loving but prickly relationship between sisters Kamaljit and Surinder has so much potential for interest, but never rings quite true. And as for Freya... again, so much potential as a character, but not believably fleshed out.
Maybe Bennett was just better at understanding women.
OTHER COMPARISONS WITH OWT
The author admires Bennett, and he has Surinder class him as one of the great writers, but he doesn't do him justice: I gave OWT 4* and this only 2*.
The structure is very different (not a criticism): OWT is in four sections: childhood, one for each sister's adult life, and a final one when they come together again, whereas this alternates past and present. We learn less about the aunt/sister who goes away and far more about what happens to the grandson of the original owners.
There is also more mention of politics. I seem to remember some things about the local council and mayor in OWT, but nothing significant enough for me to mention in my review. This story though, is framed by Enoch Powell's infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech about immigration, a strike by bus drivers who wanted to be allowed to wear turbans, and riots in London in 2011. These mentions felt deliberate, rather than being a natural part of the story.
Plot-wise, it's write-by-numbers, with every significant thing that happens in OWT happening here:
(view spoiler)[* The shop and family name is Bains (which doesn't sound very Indian, and on page 102, Mrs Bains says it's NOT the family's name over the door).
* The original owner is bedridden and the shop is run by his wife and teenage daughters.
* The older daughter is plain; the younger is pretty, clever, shrewd, and fights to continue her education.
* One assistant leaves to open a draper's shop and ends up as a rival, and more successful business.
* The younger daughter flirts with a travelling salesman, so doesn't check on her father. He dies, and she is racked with guilt.
* The elder daughter marries the loyal (but lowly) assistant, to the disapproval of the mother.
* The younger daughter elopes with the salesman, who turns out to be a feckless drunk.
* The older daughter and her husband run the shop and eventually have a single, spoilt son.
* The younger daughter works hard, saves wisely, and ends up rich, in part from the hospitality trade.
* When the older daughter is in poor health, the younger one is traced and comes back to help rescue/run it. (hide spoiler)]
Much of it felt awkward, based too much on negative stereotypes, but a few incidents were mildly amusing:
* Trying to erase "TALEBAN PEEDO" graffiti, he erased the O first, which didn't improve matters, so then put an S in the space between words, so it looked "like it had started flogging a range of Islamic amphetamines."
* Pizza Express is a good place to end a relationship: it's cheap and has "quick, attentive service, useful for when the shit hits the fan. A certain guaranteed level of busyness, which lowers the risk of a scene. The name - 'Ex-press' - acting as a subconscious primer for the task at hand. Also, there is always at least one diner who is already eating alone and crying."
* As an Asian shopkeeper, "You are anyone. Or no one."
* "There are certain places that bristle with sexual tension: libraries, Tube carriages on hot days. But your Asian corner shop... is not one of them."
* "Full-time shopkeeping might not have been so arduous if Bains Stores enjoyed either less or more custom than it did" - either time to do other things, or too busy to notice or care.
* "She wondered whether her main mistake in life had been confusing desire for romance with desire for solitude."
* "I had never met anyone who could combine such warmth with such awkwardness."
Notes are private!
Jun 14, 2014
Jun 21, 2014
Jun 08, 2014
Aug 01, 2000
This is a fascinating insight (heavily autobiographical) into the flighty and insecure world of a chorus girl in London, around the time of the first This is a fascinating insight (heavily autobiographical) into the flighty and insecure world of a chorus girl in London, around the time of the first world war (though war is never mentioned).
Many other books set in this period feature chorus girls, but usually in a peripheral way that makes their lives seem exotic and exciting, until they settle down to conventional respectability, quietly disappear, or, less often, meet a tragic end. The storyline here is more nuanced and complex - and still relevant today.
The story is told by Anna. She is 18, recently arrived in London from a small island in the West Indies, touring England in shows. There is no suggestion she has a particular talent or passion for the stage. She is more-or-less on her own in the world: she has a step-mother in Yorkshire, but her parents have died, and she has no inheritance to fall back on.
In some ways, it's a very moral tale (the superficial glamour is not presented as something to aspire to), but it feels honest, rather than preachy, and the ending is left open.
NOTE re "the n word"
It is used several times, in a way that reflects normal usage at the time and place it's set. Anna is white (with a creole mother), but "I always wanted to be black... Being black is warm and gay, being white is cold and sad". Her use of the n word is not particularly derogatory, despite the offence it may cause some readers nowadays.
MEN and WOMEN - EXPLOITATION or SYMBIOSIS?
There are profound questions here about responsibilities, equality and exploitation in relationships: how gifts and money affect the nature of a relationship, and at what point, if any, it becomes "professional".
Anna is very free-thinking for the time: non-religious ("I believe there's something horrible about any sort of praying"!), amoral and independent, albeit more through necessity than choice. Had the book been published in the nineteen-tens (rather than 1934), it might have been very controversial. As it is, its modernity means it's still pertinent today.
Anna performs on stage, lives on her own, has relationships with men - and yet she is also very naive: she needs the support (partly, but not not only, financial) of others, but some of those people take advantage of her (women as well as men).
In some ways, she is exploitative, but really, she's more of a victim - unlike some of her friends, such as the one who advises, "The thing with men is to get everything you can out of them and not care a damn", after all, "People don't give you what you're worth... They give you what they think you're used to". Mind you, the men know the rules, too, fully aware that "a girls's clothes cost more than the girl inside them".
Early on, Anna seems to have a very negative impression of (all) men: one eyed her up "in that way they have" and "he didn't look at my breasts or my legs as they usually do", but the story progresses, her thoughts on men are replaced by introspection and memories of home. When she is a kept woman, she muses "I am hopeless, resigned, utterly happy. Is that me? I am bad, not good any longer, bad".
The life can be racy, but there is underlying pain, such as when failing to nod off or waking in the night "that was when it was sad, a lonely feeling, a hopeless feeling" because she knows "the man's bound to get tired". "But in the daytime it was all right. And when you'd had a drink you know it was the best way to live in the world, because anything might happen." That sounds like hollow happiness to me.
FEMININITY, FASHION and MONEY
There is plenty of hypocritical hand-wringing in contemporary media about societal pressures for women and girls to look beautiful at all times, but that's not entirely new. Anna agonises over the fact that "everything makes you want pretty clothes like hell", and sees people looking at the latest fashions, "Their eyes were fixed on the future, 'If I could buy this, then of course I'd be quite different.'"
She realises that once you have a taste for such things, you have a taste for such things - and it changes your outlook, behaviour, and even your voice. In a curious mix of self-awareness and naivety, she says "Money ought to be everybody's. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly."
There is pain in basing one's self-worth in the opinion of someone else: "I was so nervous about how I looked that three quarters of me was in prison... If he had said that I looked all right or that I was pretty, it would have set me free." But would it?
SENSES and SENSUALITY
Many passages are a riot for the senses, invoking the colours, smells, sights, shapes and sounds of the West Indies ("The light is gold and when you shut your eyes you see fire-colour"), and comparing them with the dull uniformity of London, where "The colours here are black, brown, grey, dim-green, pale blue, the white of people's faces". Back home, "How sad the sun can be, especially in the afternoon, but in a different way from the sadness of a cold places... And the way the bats fly out at sunset, two by two, very stately... And that hibiscus once - it was so red, so proud, and its long gold tongue hung out. It was so red that even the sky was just a background for it... And the sound of rain on the galvanized-iron roof. How it would go on and on, thundering on the roof."
In contrast, scenes which could actually be sensual, are generally described in cold, detached terms - even when there is some warmth in the relationship concerned.
There are two main styles of narration; there is nothing wrong with that, but I didn't really enjoy (or quite believe) this manifestation of it, which is why I've given 3*, rather than 4*.
Most of the time, Anna describes events in such short, sparse sentences that it's almost like an early reading primer. I know she's naive and not very educated, but her voice annoyed me: "I pulled my hand away. I thought, 'No, I don't like you.' We stopped at Germaine's flat." Tum-te tum-te tum-te-tum.
More interesting and enticing were the lyrical, stream-of-consciousness passages. For example, her first impression of London is barely punctuated: "hundreds of thousands of white people white people [sic] rushing along and all the dark houses all alike frowning down one after the other all alike all stuck together - the streets like smooth shut-in ravines and the dark houses frowning down - oh I'm not going to like this place."
The dreamier sections, especially towards the end, and coupled with a few mentions of ghosts, border on the hallucinogenic, and made me think of Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea aka Bertha in Jane Eyre
* "In my heart I was always sad, with the same sort of hurt that the cold gave me in the chest."
* "The sort of music that you always know what's going to come next, that you can listen to ahead."
* "When I remember living whit her it was like looking at an old photograph of myself and thinking 'What on earth's that got to do with me?'."
* A rich man's house was "dark and quiet and not friendly to me. Sneering faintly, sneering discreetly, as a servant would."
* "What I liked was watching her eat mangoes. Her teeth would bite into the mango and her lips fasten on either side of it, and while she sucked you saw that she was perfectly happy. When she finished she always smacked her lips twice, very loud... It was a ritual."
* "The shadows of the leaves on the wall were moving quickly, like the patterns the sun makes on water."
* At a funeral, "The candles crying way tears... The people there were like upholstered ghosts."
* "The cinema smelt of poor people, and on the screen ladies and gentlemen in evening dress walked about with strained smiles."
* "It was one of those days when you see the ghosts of all the other lovely days... From behind a glass."
* "His voice was kind, but the look in his eyes was like a high, smooth, unclimbable wall. No communication was possible."
Notes are private!
May 24, 2014
May 27, 2014
May 24, 2014
Why have so few of my GR friends reviewed this brilliant book by such a well-known author? Note: The first two pages have a rather brutal scene (thoug Why have so few of my GR friends reviewed this brilliant book by such a well-known author? Note: The first two pages have a rather brutal scene (though the details are vague), but there's nothing else like that in the rest of the book, and everything that follows, arises from this incident.
This is Proulx's first novel, published a year before the excellent The Shipping News. It's equally good, but has a very different structure, and the language is not as distinctively clipped or telegraphic.
It tells the stories of the diverging lives of the Blood family (impoverished farmers in Vermont), from the mid '40s until the '70s or '80s, along with the stories of others involved in their lives. The environment is harsh, the people tough, but the landscapes often beautiful - and Proulx's writing switches effortlessly to reflect these contrasts.
Most of the chapters start with a postcard to or from one of the protagonists. Sometimes it explains what's going to happen in the chapter, but at other times it's just a side story. You only ever see the written side; never the picture. You could almost treat the book as a collection of short stories, or even read just the postcards and try to cobble it all together, though I wouldn't recommend the latter unless you've already read the book.
The Blood family consists of Mink and Jewell (father and mother), sons in their 20s (at the start), Loyal and Dub (Marvin), and teenage daughter, Mernelle. Loyal is a devoted, intuitive and knowledgeable farmer; Dub has always been slow, aimless and reckless, and Mernelle is dreamy.
On the first page, Loyal's girlfriend, Billy, dies. He blames himself, and is even more sure everyone else will blame him, so he hides the body, and leaves family and farm. "It wasn't the idea that he could go anywhere, but the idea that he had to go somewhere." It remains ambiguous as to how justified his haunted guilt at her death is, but it never leaves him. And somehow, well before the end of the book, it's hard to hate Loyal for what he did.
Loyal spends his life travelling the USA, doing a variety of mostly outdoor jobs (trapping, mining, prospecting, farming), meeting intriguing characters along the way. He sends the occasional postcard home, and always hankers after a farm and family of his own, though his inability to get intimate with women makes the latter impossible. He realises "The price for getting away. No wife, no family, no children, no human comfort in the quotidian unfolding of his life". Meanwhile, his absence, and lack of return address, changes the lives of all those he leaves behind.
There is a striking description on the second page, "her nails glowed with the luminous hardness that marks the newly dead", and this lodged in my mind, priming me to notice the many, many references to nails (finger, toe, claw, and metal) that followed: at least 20 in the first 125 pages, then none that I noticed for over 100 pages, and just a smattering from there to the end.
Nails are key for Loyal, too: when he first met Billy, "her nails gleamed", and years later, he still remembers "the flash of her nails" and how pointed they were.
Neatly, the final two mentions of nails that I spotted also relate to the dead or dying.
There's a whole thesis in these nails, and a far more interesting one than the meaning of postcards (Mernelle has a friend who collects them) or bears (hunted, toy ones collected by Mernelle, as well as being on a job lot of postcards).
LANGUAGE - and NAMES
Most of the chapters are a chunk of narrative about one or more characters, but at regular intervals, there's a short one called "What I See". These are in the present tense, and much more stream-of-consciousness, often featuring lush descriptions of an arid landscape, or something rather abstract.
It's a feature of all the chapters that it's not always immediately obvious who it's about, which keeps you turning the pages (and isn't drawn out to an irritating degree).
As in all the Proulx I've read, many of the characters have unusual names. Often they are pertinent, or oxymoronic, or maybe both (e.g. Loyal Blood), but others are just bizarre: a man called Toot Nipples, for example! But there are limits: even Loyal thinks it odd that a man named his mule after his daughter.
This is a great strength of the book: so many characters over so many decades, and they change a great deal, but it feels like a plausible reaction to circumstances (except for Dub), and I really felt I knew and understood them. When Mernelle grows up "there was a sureness in her that estranged her from the old child's life".
OPTIMISM, PESSIMISM, FATE
Early on, we're told the Bloods have a "knack for doing the wrong thing", and that largely proves true. Later, Ben the amateur astronomer says to Loyal "I see the way you throw yourself at trouble. Punish yourself with work. How you don't get anywhere except a different place."
There are a couple of recurring themes that ought to be depressing, and yet the characters are always hopeful of things getting better (and some things do), so overall, it isn't a depressing book.
* Thwarted longing for children (and of those who do have them, most are painfully estranged)
* Valuable things, long saved-up for or treasured, are lost, destroyed or stolen
Although Proulx isn't crass enough to spell it out, they're all striving for The American Dream, but most never quite reach it, and Loyal in particular, wants to do "something of value".
FREEDOM OR BURDEN OF TRAVEL?
Loyal doesn't feel he has much of a choice about travelling, and is resigned to it. In contrast, the liberation his mother finds when she learns to drive in her fifties, is joyous: "continuity broke: when she drove, her stifled youth unfurled like a ribbon" and "the pleasure of choosing which turns and roads to take" is a literal and metaphorical description of her empowerment. Driving also gives her a new appreciation of landscape: "When you'd been driving with your eyes on the road for hours, you wanted to let them stretch out to the boundaries of the earth." And yet, in keeping with the theme of valuable things being lost, even this has a sting in its tale.
Initially, the Bloods are atavistically tied to their land, but as the stories diverge, they (and others) become outsiders.
* Incomers "moved into farm houses hoping to fit their lives into the rooms, to fit their shoes to the stair treads".
* An incomer was "urban in habitat but haunted from childhood by fantasies of wilderness".
"This family has a habit of disappearing. Everyone... is gone except me. And I'm the end of it."
IS THERE ONLY ONE WAY TO LOVE; CAN ONE CHANGE?
(view spoiler)[The first is is a question Loyal asks himself, and it's a slightly troubling one. Because of the ongoing trauma of how Billy died, if he becomes aroused by a woman, he has a panic attack and passes out. So he has occasional relationships with men (though this is never explicit). Assuming he was straight in the first place, it's odd he doesn't seem to struggle with this more. Or maybe he never was straight, and perhaps the fact his girlfriend had a masculine name is indicative? (hide spoiler)]
QUOTES ABOUT LANDSCAPE
* "The October afternoon collapsed into evening."
* "Evening haze... blurred a sky discolored like a stained silk skirt."
* "The overclouded sky was as dull as old wire."
* "Heat ricocheted off the colorless rocks. Nothing moved. The sky leaned on them, the earth pressed upward."
* "The work of his hands had changed the land... The smooth fields were echoes of himself in the landscape."
* "The atavistic yearning that swept him when he stood beneath the trees... he was in an ancient time that lured him but which he could not understand in any way... The kernel of life , tiny, heavy, deep red in color, was secreted in these gabbling woods."
* Florida swamp: "Dub feels the canoe slip through the tea-colored water, sees the water ruptured by iridescent gas bubbles, patterned by the checkerboard backs and wood-knot eyes of alligators, clouds of egrets slanting out of the choked trees... The plangent call of rain crown under the long layers of clouds like pressed black linen."
* "Water charged with leaves raced in the gutters, wet boots flashed like flints. The window of his house shone in the darkness like squares of melting butter."#
* "The teeth of autumn gnawed at the light."
* "His peculiar voice that was both sweet and grainy, like the meat of a pear."
* "The barn stank of ammonia, sour milk, cloying hay and wet iron."
* A husband "had crushed her into a corner of life". Widowhood isn't always bad.
* Half brothers who only recently met bond over land, "The property was like an ear-trumpet through which they could understand each other."
* "The electric feeling of quick money was everywhere" amongst those prospecting with Geiger counters.
* "The dulled eyes in their heavy hammocks of flesh were as incurious as those of a street musician."
* "The woman's shape was as formless as poured sugar."
* "He'd trained himself by now to need and want little... The unsecured scaffolding of his life rested on forgetting."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
May 14, 2014
May 23, 2014
May 14, 2014
Jan 01, 2011
A funny little book - and it is very little (64 pages, each about half the size of a normal paperback page). It's not bad, but far, far better, is her A funny little book - and it is very little (64 pages, each about half the size of a normal paperback page). It's not bad, but far, far better, is her feast of bloodier, darker tales, The Bloody Chamber, reviewed here
Angela Carter retells seven of Charles Perrault's classic fairytales - though two I'd never heard of. In fact, the telling is mostly traditional, but with an explicit moral or two appended, some of which have a more modern slant. I'm not really sure of its purpose or intended audience, as it's slightly too knowing (and unillustrated) for small children, but not really subversive enough for real adult enjoyment. Some of the "morals" are dubious, and surprising coming from a female author, yet they're not witty enough to be taken as jokes. Or maybe I've missed the point.
My reason for reading it was to get a version of Bluebeard, because it relates to Jane Eyre, as mentioned in my Jane Eyre review. I will now read Vonnegut's weirder take on the story.
Bluebeard is worse than Rochester, and his beard is literally blue. He marries, despite the fact he "had been married several times before and nobody knew what became of his wives", and a short while after, goes away on business. He gives his wife all the keys and tells her to have the run of the house and its riches, invite her friends and do whatever makes her happy. His only stipulation is that she must not use the tiniest key, and that the consequences will be dire if she does. Just as with the apple in Eden, what is forbidden proves irresistible, despite the lusher alternatives. In this case, the room contains the bloodied bodies of murdered former wives. However, the real problem is that, like Lady Macbeth's hands, the blood won't wash off the key, so she is found out.
Morals: "Curiosity is a charming passion but may only be satisfied at the price of a thousand regrets... [it] is the most fleeting of pleasures... and it always proves very, very expensive." The other moral is an odd observation that modern husbands wouldn't try to restrict a wife's curiosity because women rule.
Compare and contrast with a rather different novel of the same name: Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard.
Little Red Riding Hood
A completely traditional telling.
Morals: Don't talk to strangers (fine) but if you do, don't be surprised if it ends badly (sounds like victim blaming). It then warns of real-life men who sweet-talk young girls, but are really "the most dangerous beasts of all".
Puss in Boots
A completely traditional telling.
Morals are quirkier: Hard work and ingenuity trump inherited wealth. Also "clothes, bearing and youth speedily inspire affection; and the means to achieve them are not always entirely commendable."
This is a traditional telling until the marriage, after which, the prince leaves Beauty behind in her castle, and keeps her (and their subsequent children) secret for two years because his mother is half ogre and he fears she may still have "ogrish tastes" and eat his children! A few twists and turns follow (all new to me), but of course, it all ends happily and justly.
Morals: It's good to wait for the right man, but 100 years is too long, and "long engagements make for happy marriages, but young girls these days [written in 1977!] want so much to be married I do not have the heart to press the moral."
Another traditional telling.
Morals - these are odd: Charm trumps beauty - except that doesn't fit the story, despite Carter's claim that "When her godmother dressed Cinderella up and told her how to behave at the ball, she instructed her in charm." Even odder, "It is certainly a great advantage to be intelligent, brave, well-born, sensible... But however great may be your god-given store, they will never help you get on in the world unless you have either a godfather or godmother to put them to work for you"!
Ricky with the Tuft
I've never heard of this, so had no idea if Carter has changed it at all, though Petra's excellent review implies not. The question is, which is better: beauty or brains? (I have a relative who hoped her girls would be pretty rather than clever - as if they're mutually exclusive.) Anyway, Ricky is an extraordinarily ugly baby prince, but blessed with wit and brains. In a nearby kingdom, twin princesses are born: one beautiful but stupid, and the other, clever but ugly. The fairytale twist is that whoever Ricky falls in love with will attain his level of intelligence, and whoever the pretty princess falls in love with will attain (or appear to her to attain) her level of attractiveness. The other sister is rather irrelevant, so the worrying message seems to be that beauty matters more than brains.
Moral: Ying and yang and love is blind - or at least, armed with rose-tinted specs.
The Foolish Wishes
People being granted wishes and using them stupidly is a fairytale staple, but I'd not heard this version before. It's just a short and slightly amusing example of how people waste opportunities.
Moral: People are stupid. Or, as Carter prefers to put it, "Greedy, short-sighted, careless, thoughtless, changeable people don't really know how to make sensible decisions; and few of us are capable of using well the gifts God gave us, anyway."
Here's a more radical approach to retelling fairytales:
Notes are private!
May 27, 2014
May 28, 2014
May 13, 2014
I remember enjoying some of Rossetti's shorter poems as I child (not that this is especially long), but was not familiar with this until I heard an ex I remember enjoying some of Rossetti's shorter poems as I child (not that this is especially long), but was not familiar with this until I heard an extraordinary reading on BBC Radio 4 by Shirley Henderson a few months' ago. I've tried to find a link, but can only find a very short sample: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01q2c44
It is a hypnotic poem about temptation, salivation, and salvation via sacrifice, told in contrasts: a sensible sister and a weak-willed one; gorgeous fruit, from hideous goblins.
It can happily be read by or to a child, though as an adult, it's impossible to ignore the sensual allusions, starting on the very first page, with the goblins' tempting fare including "plump unpecked cherries".
The whole story is dripping with the juice of ripe fruit, and the beguiling words of the hideous goblins trying to sell it.
This story is about the language and imagery more than the plot. If you don't want spoilers, stop reading now.
Laura and Lizzie are sisters who come across the goblin men in the forest. Lizzie is all-too-aware of the dangers (later, she reminds her sister of how Jeanie wasted away after she "ate their fruits and wore their flowers"), but Lizzie lingers. She has no money, so pays with a lock of her golden hair, which in a mythical world, is clearly not good. But she tastes their fruit, and is euphoric at the sensations; she "sucked until her lips were sore... And knew not was it night or day."
Lizzie gets home safely, but of course, she craves more goblin fruit. Next morning, "the first cock crowed his warning", but the sisters go about their chores as normal. "At length slow evening came: They went with pitchers to the reedy brook; Lizzie most placid in her look, Laura most like a leaping flame."
Laura listens for the "come buy, come buy" call, and is shocked to realise she can no longer hear it, though her pure sister can. "Day after day, night after night, Laura kept watch in vain. In sullen silence of exceeding pain. She never caught again the goblin cry."
Like Jeanie, Laura fades away: "She dwindled, as the fair full moon does turn To swift decay and burn Her fire away".
Yet every day, Lizzie is tormented by hearing the goblins' cry. She "Longed to buy the fruit to comfort her [Lizzie], But feared to pay too dear." Nevertheless, eventually she takes a penny, and decides to get what her sister craves. Thus Lizzie has turned from tempted to temptress.
But instead of taking her money, the goblins assault her and "Held her hands and squeezed their fruits Against her mouth to make her eat". She resits, but is covered in pulp and juice - which she then urges her sister to take: "Eat me, drink me, love me" (sexual or eucharistic?), so "Shaking with anguish fear, and pain, She [Laura] kissed and kissed her with a hungry mouth".
This time the juice is more like poison to her, yet it is also purgative, and restores her. The power of the love of a pure sister is thus demonstrated, and handed down to their own children.
There is a stark contrast in the revulsion the goblins themselves inspire and the irresistible appeal of their fruit, like drugs and indeed, Victorian attitudes to sex.
Of the goblins, "One tramped at a rat's pace... One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry" and when they sense a victim, their movements are hungry, "hobbling, Flying, running, leaping, Puffing and blowing, Chucking, clapping, crowing, Clucking and gobbling." If they fear she might leave without succumbing, "Grunting and snarling... Cross-grained uncivil; Their tones waxed lout, Their looks were evil. Lashing their tails They trod and hustled her... Tore her gown and soiled her stocking".
And, ah, the fruit: "Bloom-down-cheeked peaches... Wild free-born cranberries", "Pears red with basking Out in the sun, Plums on their twigs; Pluck them and suck them, Pomegranates, figs". Who would not be tempted - are you Laura or Lizzie?
Notes are private!
May 10, 2014
May 12, 2014
May 10, 2014
Apr 22, 1997
A lyrical, mysterious tale of misunderstanding and pain, echoing through the years. At its dark heart, it demonstrates how small things can have multi A lyrical, mysterious tale of misunderstanding and pain, echoing through the years. At its dark heart, it demonstrates how small things can have multiple and major consequences, meaning that everything can change in a single day. "Anything can happen to anyone. It's best to be prepared." - and these fears trigger tragedy.
It is set in Kerala (southern India) in 1969 (when twins Rahel (girl) and Estha (boy) are aged 7) and 23 years later, when the twins return to the family home. As the narrative switches periods, hints become clearer and eventually become facts: you know bad things will happen, but it's not initially clear who will be the perpetrators. There is beauty, but always brooding menace of nastiness to come, or echoes of trauma long ago.
Caste, communism, Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", "The Sound of Music", whom to love (and how), and insects (especially moths) are common threads.
They are affluent, educated, Anglophile, Syrian Christians. The grandfather (Pappachi) was the Imperial Entomologist and in later years his wife (Mammachi) and their son (Chacko) started a pickle factory. Their daughter, Ammu, is the divorced mother of the twins, and has "the infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber". The twins' great aunt (Baby Kochamma) lives there as well. She is a bitter woman, who loved, but never had, Father Mulligan, so retreats into false piety. She seeks and relishes opportunities to gloat at the misdemeanours and misfortunes of others: on hearing of scandal, "She set sail at once. A ship of goodness ploughing through a sea of sin".
The big event is when Chacko's English ex wife (Margaret) is widowed and she brings Chacko's 9 year old daughter (Sophie Mol) to visit.
The other key character is Velutha (son of Vellya Paapen), a clever untouchable, a couple of years younger than Ammu. The family pay for his education and he becomes indispensable at the factory for maintaining the machines, though carpentry is his true skill. There is also Kochu Maria, a house servant, who becomes more like Baby Kochamma's companion in later years.
The powerful bond of "two-egg" twins is essential to the story: "In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun... Estha and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us... a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities."
However, they spend the years between the two time periods living apart, and that, inevitably, changes things. When returning as an adult, "now she thinks of Estha and Rahel as Them... Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Links have appeared." They are now "A pair of actors... stumbling through their parts, nursing someone else's sorrow", and realising, too late, "You're not the Sinners. You're the Sinned Against."
The family is founded on preservation: first of insects, then of Paradise Pickles and Preserves, and always of reputation. However, ghosts are everywhere, mainly in the memories of the dead and the ramifications of their deaths, but also in other forms of loss: opportunities, love, names (the twins are without a surname when their parents split) and even the power of speech. "Silence hung in the air like a secret loss."
Sophie Mol's death is mentioned on page 4, and although its significance is constantly referred to, the details are only revealed very near the end. Her death "stepped softly around the house... like a quiet thing in socks" and "sometimes the memory of death lives... much longer than the life it purloined". Eventually "Sophie Mol became a Memory, while The Loss of Sophie Mol grew robust and alive. Like a fruit in season. Every season."
Those left behind experience "Not death. Just the end of living."
The family home descends into dilapidation. Baby Kochamma, once an skilled gardener, lets her plants wither or go wild, while she devotes her life to vicariously living the lives of ghosts she sees on satellite TV.
There is also an abandoned house across the river that the twins nickname The History House. There are many explicit comparisons with The Heart of Darkness: it was the home of Kari Saipu, and Englishman who "went native" and "captured dreams and redreamed them". Eventually, he shot himself when his young lover was taken away.
BETRAYAL AND THE DEATH OF LOVE
There are violent relationships, broken relationships (not necessarily the same) and unrequited love, but it is, of course, the children who suffer most.
The twins are raised by their loving but strict mother, but they are haunted by a fear that she will cease to love them. Their "willingness to love people who didn't really love them... was as though the window through which their father disappeared had been kept open for anyone." After Sophie Mol's death, when everything changes, (view spoiler)[Ammu is sent away, Estha is sent to his father, and Rahel is left behind to be raised by her uncle and grandparents, who "provided the care (food, clothes, fees) but withdrew the concern". (hide spoiler)]
There are other forms and instances of betrayal and lies, sometimes to keep up appearances, and sometimes for selfish ends.
CROSSING BOUNDARIES - OF LOVE AND OTHER THINGS
Taboos are many in a society ruled by caste (as well as class and religion), but the family's problems with classification are first highlighted in relation to jams and jellies, and the fact that banana jam was illegal as if fitted neither category. "They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much." And by whom.
Gradually, "Estha and Rahel learned how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws." "History used the back verandah to negotiate its terms and collect its dues. Estha would keep the receipt for the dues that Velutha paid." When pressed by an adult to lie about something significant, "Childhood tiptoed out. Silence slid in like a bolt. Someone switched off the light and Velutha disappeared."
There is also confusion and hypocrisy around some of the power relationships, e.g. a wealthy communist landlord and factory owner with "a Marxist mind and feudal libido", and of course, the different levels of sexual freedom permitted for men and women.
SMALL THINGS: MOTHS AND BUTTERFLIES
The whole story is really a demonstration of The Butterfly Effect, although it's moths that are mentioned explicitly (Pappachi discovered a new variety of moth, but wasn't recognised for it).
"It was the kind of time in the life of a family when something happens to nudge its hidden morality from its resting place and make it bubble to the surface and float for a while in clear view."
There are many other Small Things:
* "The God of Loss. The God of Small Things."
* Ammu telling Rahel "When you hurt people they begin to love you less", a throwaway line that grows, festers and twists within until it changes the lives of everyone.
* Ammu is "Someone Small who has been bullied all their lives by Someone Big".
* At big moments "only the Small Things are ever said".
* A couple who know they have no future, so "instinctively they stick to the Small Things"
* Filth and decay, of which there is much 23 years later, is an accumulation of small things.
A distinctive feature of the writing is the large number of portmanteau coinages. Most are pairs of adjectives or adjective plus noun: sourmetal, oldfood, fishswimming, chinskin, deadlypurposed, longago, suddenshutter, sharksmile, orangedrinks, steelshrill, suddenshutter, stickysweet. However, things like cuff-links are written with a hyphen. Cuff-links also hint at an explanation: when the young twins are told they are "'to link cuffs together'... they were thrilled by this morsel of logic... and gave them an inordinate (if exaggerated) satisfaction, and a real affection for the English language."
* "Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, flatly baffled in the sun."
* "The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation" and in monsoon season "short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with."
* "Over time he had acquired the ability to blend into the background... [he] occupied very little space in the world."
* "Once the quietness arrived, it... enfolded him in its swampy arms... It sent its stealthy, suckered tentacles... hoovering the knolls and dells of his memory, dislodging old sentences, whisking them off the tip of his tongue. It stripped his thoughts of the words that described them and left them pared and naked."
* "Gulf-money houses build by [people] who worked hard but unhappily in faraway places... the resentful older houses tinged green with envy, cowering in their private driveways."
* "drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge."
* "Her eyes spread like butter behind her thick glasses."
* He walked away "like a high-stepping camel with an appointment to keep."
* "Rahel tried to say something. It came out jagged. Like a piece of tin."
* "twinkled was a word with crinkled, happy edges."
* The weight of obligation "widened his smile and bent his back".
* The things that can't be forgotten "sit on dusty shelves like stuffed birds, with baleful sideways starting eyes".
* "Silverfish tunnelled through the pages, burrowing arbitrarily from species to species, turning organised information into yellow lace."
* "The ants made a faint crunchy sound as life left them. Like an elf eating toast."
* An adult playing with children "Instinctively colluding in the conspiracy of their fiction".
* "Insanity hovered close at hand, like an eager waiter at an expensive restaurant."
* "resting under the skin of her dreams"
* The "transparent" kiss of a child "unclouded by passion or desire... that demanded no kiss-back. Not a cloudy kiss full of questions."
* "The great stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably."
* "She was too young to realise that what she assumed was her love for Chacko was actually a tentative, timorous acceptance of herself."
I should add that I am really grateful to Steve whose excellent review, and comments beneath, persuaded me to pick up this book asap, rather than let it languish on my shelves any longer. His review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
May 10, 2014
May 01, 2014
Apr 07, 1987
This takes over 100 classic works of literature and summarises each in a few paragraphs, often as a pastiche of the work itself. Most are poems of som This takes over 100 classic works of literature and summarises each in a few paragraphs, often as a pastiche of the work itself. Most are poems of some sort (free verse, sonnets, plays, , limericks and others), but there are letters, diary entries, straight prose, and Kafka's Metamorphosis is rendered as the lyrics to a blues song.
The irony is that, in contradiction of the title, you can really only appreciate the entries if you are familiar with the work it parodies.
Clever, funny, surprising and varied, there are numerous contributors (including the compiler, O E Parrott).
One that's short enough to quote in entirity is Claudio Vita-Finzi's precis of Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange:
Young Alex breaks people like toys;
He's cured by a course which destroys
His freedom of will;
He grows up and... boys will be boys.
There are amusingly awful rhymes and puns, such as this opening about Don Quixote:
A sort of knightly Mr Fix-It,
That's the story of Don Quixote....
Fans of English cuisine(!) may like the start of this tribute to The Wind in the Willows
The wind in the willows...
Spring-cleaning for Mole;
The Rat's on the river,
The Toad's in a hole -
The troubling Lolita is remembered in amazingly alliterative series of "What the Papers Said" headlines, starting with:
LONELY LECTURER LODGES WITH LOVELORN LANDLADY
And ending with:
LOQUACIOUS LOGOPHILE LOCKED UP FOR LIFE!
Othello is given similar treatment.
Perhaps most strangely, the exquisite and rather mannered story of Brideshead Revisited is told in a series of limericks, such as:
Next day's invitation to dine,
On plovers' eggs, lobster and wine,
Is raffishly bluff,
Where destinies darkly entwine.
When this was first published in 1985, I think it was (one of) the first of its kind. There have been many similar books since, some by O E Parrott, but this is my favourite. (However, this sort of collection is not to be confused with the sort of reviews published by Manny Rayner, which are equally excellent, in totally different (and more varied) ways: What Pooh Might Have Said to Dante and Other Futile Speculations and If Research Were Romance and Other Implausible Conjectures.)
Notes are private!
Apr 25, 2014
Jan 01, 0200
Mar 04, 1986
Having enjoyed The Return of the Soldier, I picked this up in a charity shop, without realising it was the second of a trilogy until after I started r Having enjoyed The Return of the Soldier, I picked this up in a charity shop, without realising it was the second of a trilogy until after I started reading it. Fortunately, it still works as a standalone book.
This is a coming of age novel, set in in the run up to WW1: "I wanted to make friends... to be part of the general web, to be linked with boys and girls and men and women who were not yet what they would be in the end."
Clare Aubrey, a retired concert pianist, has been abandoned by her gambling husband and is raising their teenage children: Cordelia (the oldest and least warm), twins Rose (the narrator) and Mary (both destined to follow in their mother's musical footsteps), and Richard Quinn (charming, bright, wise and still at school). Cousin Rosamund and her mother, Constance, live with them, too. They are upper-middle class, and by selling some paintings, on the advice of Mr Morpurgo, family finances are now reasonably secure.
As the family rebuild their lives, they relish small victories such as being able to afford flowers to plant in the garden, "We were able to do the things that other people could do". But as they progress, the shadow of war looms, and "we saw a fungoid bloom of ruin slowly creep across the familiar objects among which we had been reared".
At times, it's a little florid, mannered and self-consciously erudite - like a diluted version of Ivy Compton-Burnett. There is not much plot (though there is a murder), but there is some sharp wit, especially at the expense of the dreadful Mrs Morpurgo.
The Aubreys are a little adrift: they have the background, tastes and education of the elite, but not quite the income. The mother has become (or maybe always was) oblivious to many social cues, and their friendships cross boundaries in a way that may have shocked some: Mr Morpurgo is a wealthy and generous Jewish art dealer, but they also regularly stay in a pub on the Thames, where they're related by marriage to the landlord.
This can cause awkwardness: "Like all people brought up in households destitute of manservants, we regarded them as implacable enemies... who could implement their ill-will by means of supernatural powers which enabled them to see through a guest's pretensions."
Appropriate clothing is a potential pitfall, but also a source of wry observation. For a prison visit, a man wore "clothes which suggested he had not made up his mind whether he was going to a funeral or to Ascot."
RADICAL FOR HER TIME
West was a member of the Bloomsbury set, that also included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and E M Forster. They were known for their progressive attitudes to women and relationships amongst other things, and although this is not a radical novel, there are glimpses of this aspect of West's thinking.
She portrays strong, independent women, and although she doesn't suggest all men are feckless or dangerous, the twins do have such fears, which is one reason why they are determined not to marry.
But there are admirable men in the story, with Richard Quin held up as the ideal man - even before he's a man. (view spoiler)[The fact he dies in the war demonstrates teh futile waste of war. (hide spoiler)] Cousin Rosamund says of Richard Quin "I love him... but it's a shame he has to be a man... what will happen to him in a world where men are so awful?"
Uncle Len is also a reliable chap: a lower middle class a publican who is a quirky and admirable auto-didact, something the Aubreys encourage. It sometimes has amusing consequences, such as when he assumes Darwinism is a new and controversial topic for the doctor and the rector: "he was not making the mistakes of a stupid man, he was guessing like an explorer". For all his good qualities, he's still a bit old-school, wanting to keep the women away from any trouble, though Rose asserts "There was no difference in courage between men and women, if what happened wasn't fit for me it wasn't fit for men to see either".
There is also a lengthy and educational look at perceptions of gypsies.
A child is not a different species, as Victorians sometimes thought, but "an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness".
The mixed feelings of adolescence are probably not as anti-feminist as they first seem, but rather reflect typical mix of fear and excitement, coupled with the limitations women of the time faced. For example, on becoming aware of the attention of men, "We liked this, and did not like it. We wished we were growing up into something other than women."
On the other hand, Clare's advice to a shy, pretty daughter is a little off: "people like young girls who are pretty... when you go to any new place and you feel nervous, just stand there and let people look at you"!
It's not just in class terms and in the travails of reaching adulthood that characters have identity issues.
Is Clare, married, abandoned, or widowed?
When they leave music college, one of the twins has to change her surname to avoid confusion.
Loss of identity is one of Rose's reasons for fearing marriage.
Uncle Len tries to hide his gypsy background.
One can't help wondering if Mr Morpurgo's collecting of Christian art is, at least in part, a turning aside from his Jewish heritage.
Music is integral to the lives of the main characters, and there is no shying away from the hardships of training: "That was why I had had not childhood and why I had seen so much sunlight through windowpanes". There's always a higher target, but perfection is always just out of reach. They are torn between the desire to succeed and the difficulty of doing so.
When Cordelia gives up professional musicianship, the twins feel they "had so little in common with her that she seemed almost abstract: an inorganic burden like a knapsack."
* "One cannot live slowly as one can play music slowly."
* "Kate wore her wooden look of consequence."
* A butler "spoke with gloating discretion" about an extra guest.
* "Mrs Morpurgo had no secrets, She controlled her words well enough... but as she spoke the truth was blared aloud by the intonation of her commanding voice, the expressions which passed over her face, legible as the words on a poster, and her vigorous movements."
* "She had meant to be nearly, but not quite, intolerable."
* "She had not been abandoned to grief... she had been recovering her faculty for insolent surprise."
* "Her hands clasped before her dark flowing skirts, and a thread in every line of pent up emotion about to burst its dam."
* "There was a faint, sharp sweetness about her, like the taste of raspberries. She wore fussy and frilly clothes and jingling bracelets whit an air of surprised distaste, as if she had been put to sleep by a witch and had awoken to find herself in these trappings."
* "It had been furnished by Maples in the Japanese style, not that the family had any oriental connection, but simply because the backwash of the aesthetic movement had by then reached the suburbs."
* "A Victorian mansion... and within its walls Asia had taken its revenge against colonialism... the drawing room, which really did not look so bad now they had taken out the enormous ivory model of the Taj Mahal."
* Two sisters (not Aubreys) who had been "barmaids, not at the height of their profession. They had wandered in a defeated continent of the vulgar world, where vulgarity had lost its power and its pride... Listening to Aunt Lily's conversation was like having emptied at one's feet a dustbin full of comic songs and jokes from pantomimes."
* "The river, the grey-green mystery, the mirror which reflects solid objects so steadily but is not solid, the fugitive which remains."
* A mob in a pub: "Their faces were clay-coloured and featureless, yet not stupid; they might have been shrewd turnips."
* "Constance was like a statue, not a very good statue, imperfectly Pygmalionised."
* "The plane trees were casting their last crumpled maroon and silver leaves on the pewter pavements, the lights of the passing traffic paid out yellow ribbons of reflection on the shining roadway."
* "She looked as if she were about to burst into tears, but she was wonderful at catching the ball of her own mood in mid-air."
* "I was overcome by an abstract sense of grief, something like the moan of shingle dragging back to sea between breakers."
* "Waltzes and one-steps and tangoes were exhaled from the porticoes wearing striped awnings like masks, and in the gardens dancers walked on the moon-frosted lawns, the moonlight shining with phantom coldness from the young women's bare shoulders."
* "The silence that had been silting up in the rooms... now filled it as an invisible solid. (view spoiler)[Now Richard Quin was nowhere but he was everywhere. (hide spoiler)]"
Notes are private!
Apr 17, 2014
Apr 17, 2014
Apr 24, 2001
A fairly typical Murdoch (which is a good thing, imo), charting the tangled lives and reconfigured and unrequited relationships of family and friends, A fairly typical Murdoch (which is a good thing, imo), charting the tangled lives and reconfigured and unrequited relationships of family and friends, featuring a Svengali-like figure, and focusing on just a year or two. Most of the characters are somewhat lonely and broken, with a tendency to introspection, no one is very happy for long, and few of the characters are very likeable (though all are intriguing).
One way in which it differs from some of Murdoch's other novels is that all but one of the women are strong and take the initiative (one is the master puppeteer, but others have their own schemes) and most of the men just watch or react, somewhat haphazardly.
Hugh has just been widowed. Years ago, he had a fling with his wife's childhood friend, Emma Sands, who now lives with her beautiful younger companion (possibly more), Lindsay Rimmer. Hugh and Fanny's daughter, Sally/Sarah lives in Australia with her husband and four children (and another on the way). The oldest is Penn (boy of 15) who comes to stay with his uncle Randall. Randall's wife is the rather wet and pious Ann. They have a mysterious daughter, Miranda, aged 13, and recently lost their son, Steve (who was roughly Penn's age). They have a large house and run a successful rose-growing business; their marriage is less successful.
Mildred and Humphrey Finch are friends, primarily of Hugh's. They have a happy but chaste marriage, and Mildred yearns for Hugh. Her brother, Felix, is interested in Lindsay and Ann, and the vicar has a bit of a crush on Ann. There is a frisson between Penn and Miranda, and there are fears that the gay Humphrey may have designs on Penn.
Clearly, no good can come of any of this, and as new relationships are tentatively formed, matters become more complex.
Penn is the obvious outsider, but each character is an outsider in some way, even to themselves. Hugh just bumbles along, largely oblivious to everything unless it's spelt out to him.
You could almost make a case for Hugh's Tintoretto as a character, "a pearl whose watery whiteness both reflected and resisted the soft surrounding honey-coloured shades".
Like most Murdoch books, this features someone (more than one) pulling strings in the lives of others, primarily for their twisted personal enjoyment. Consequences don't seem to feature in their calculations: "There was in [X's] apprehension of things... nothing grossly predatory. They were like servants who run ahead of their master, symbols of a presence, almost sacraments." One man is attracted by the "moral otherness" of one such schemer.
At times, the manipulation borders on the magical: "fear, attraction, puzzlement and hostility, which had once together compose a sort of enchantment" and "she has drawn me here, witch-like".
This theme is also reflected in the way Miranda still plays with dolls. Her grandfather ponders how she "managed to combine her Peter Pannish demeanour with a knowingness which made Hugh sometimes conjecture that it was all a sort of masquerade". Even Randall still treasures his cuddly toys.
This gives a somewhat theatrical feel to the whole book. "positively enjoying the atmosphere of relaxed drama which surrounded Emma. It was as if Emma made her [Ann] exist more... she had an agreeable sense almost of being seduced."
SEX VERSUS CHASTITY
There is sex, but largely off-stage. What's more interesting is the relationships that endure but are apparently chaste, all for different reasons. Divorce was less common in 1962, and some of the characters are sincerely trying to live Christian lives.
"He made of his quiet love... a sort of home... He waited."
"Their relationship was was intimate yet abstract, a frictionless machine which generated little warmth, but which functioned excellently.
"All sorts of catastrophes can happen inside a marriage without destroying it... Thank God marriages don't depend on love."
"Perhaps in their days of happiness, their personalities had been too hazy for the question [of whether they 'fitted'] to arise. Now the haze had cleared and they had hardened into incompatible shapes."
The daisy-chain of relationships seems never-ending; the relationships that seem to end, never really do, perhaps resurfacing as "a dark new passion" that "was like a mutual haunting".
Apart from less divorce and more Christianity in 1962 than in 2014, there are a couple of ideas that strike a wrong note now: the tacit assumption that homosexuality and pederasty are the same, and a jocular rape threat issued to a woman who is being a bit of a tease ("I shall probably beat you and certainly rape you" if you don't change your mind).
All the characters are mourning people, opportunities and experiences. Ann feels "perpetually haunted and mocked by a music of happiness which came from some inaccessible elsewhere."
Hugh is mourning Fanny, "his grief... came to him with a kind of healing intensity. He burned himself with that pure pain. But he knew too that he had been touched by... some leper touch, which would work out its own relentless chemistry." He is also juggling that loss with the guilt of not being a better husband (his long-ago affair) and wistfulness at lost opportunities.
In the aftermath of Fanny's death, Hugh goes to stay with Randall's family, who are also still mourning Steve, but it affects them all very differently. High finds it oppressive, "The big indifferent house, upon which the unhappiness of him and his had made so little impression, and where the phantoms of his sadness were without a resting place."
The opening is oddly reminiscent of the famous opening lines of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but I'm not sure whether to read further significance into it:
"Fanny Peronett was dead. That much her husband Hugh Peronett was certain of as he stood in the rain beside the grave."
The suggestion is that the best chance of happiness is from forgetting and reinventing.
* "He could pass as a distinguished man, just as he could pass as a good husband... But the terror and the glory of life had passed him by."
* Unlike the living characters, "Poor Fanny had no secrets. She had been a woman without mystery. There had been no dark in her."
* "Miranda was as pale as her mother, but her face had the transparency of marble, where Ann's had the dullness of wax."
* "The sun was shining, but in a feeble unconvinced sort of way."
* "His expression of rapturous doubt joined with apprehension of a higher and inconceivably beneficent yet also dangerous world... Her tender, intent, ironical gaze gently toasted one side of his face."
* "Mildred... set her feet apart in a patient yet stubborn pose which indicated with brutal clarity that she was waiting for Swann to go."
* "Remembering an infatuation, she "seemed in his memory to drip with colours almost too vivid to bear".
* "A niche reserved for men of independent means and limited ambition."
* "The silence that followed began to coil and accumulate into a great white shell of eloquence and understanding".
* Mother and daughter share "a tension, an excessive mutual consciousness, a hostile magnetism."
Notes are private!
Mar 02, 2014
Apr 12, 2014
Mar 02, 2014
"It was her voice that drew you in... she could make you smell the smoke from an unlit fire."
That refers to a character in one of the stories, but is "It was her voice that drew you in... she could make you smell the smoke from an unlit fire."
That refers to a character in one of the stories, but is just as applicable to Proulx herself.
This is a collection of short stories of Wyoming ranchers. It's a harsh environment and a harsh life: men and women alike have to be tough. "Wyos are touchers, hot blooded and quick, and physically yearning. Maybe it's because they spend so much time handling livestock".
There are few sympathetic characters, alleviated by dashes of dry humour. The stories generally focus more on the men, some of whom are very dodgy (including rape), although their behaviour is largely glossed over or condoned within their community. The visceral power of the elements and environment runs through all the stories, and the use of dialect and slightly clipped sentences is another similarity.
I'll comment on each story individually, then end with a few more general comments and favourite quotes.
THE HALF-SKINNED STEER
This is an old man's road trip to his brother's funeral, prompting reminiscence. There is a parallel story with a more mystical aspect.
He thinks of women like stock (as do many in the other stories), "What he wanted to know... was if Rollo had got the girlfriend away from the old man, thrown a saddle over her and ridden off into the sunset" and "she had long grey-streaked braids, Rollo could use them for reins." Not necessarily what one expects from a contemporary female writer, but I expect it's an accurate portrayal.
THE MUD BELOW
Diamond Felts is an unpleasant and very small man (only 5' 3"), who is thrilled by his first bull ride, "dark lightning in his gut, a feeling of blazing real existence". He hits the road, performing in shows, and picking up (and dropping) women as he goes. One is described as "a half-hour painkiller but without the rush and thrill he got from a bull ride." He had a traumatic childhood, but that doesn't excuse the man he becomes.
Does what it says on the tin, as the Ronseal adverts used to say. This is a catalogue of blue-collar jobs in places with strange names: Unique, Poison Spider Road, Tongue River, Thermopolis, and Medicine Bow. I was amused that a man who came from Unique "travels all over the continent... he says every place is the same".
THE BLOOD BAY
A very short story of amoral (or immoral?) opportunists - with a twist.
PEOPLE IN HELL JUST WANT A DRINK OF WATER
A haunting story two families, how the past can echo down the generations, culminating in an awful encounter. (view spoiler)[The woman kills one of her children, not entirely intentionally, and years later, another is physically and mentally impaired in a car accident. (hide spoiler)]
THE BUNCHGRASS EDGE OF THE WORLD
This has a fairytale aspect (view spoiler)[(a talking tractor?) (hide spoiler)], but is ultimately about a power struggle within a family, and the role of women.
PAIR A SPURS
For some reason, this story just didn't grab me, and I can't work out why, as it's not hugely different from the others.
A LONELY COAST
It's about middle aged (well, early 40s) single women (who might be labelled trailer trash), on the pull. It starts with a parallel between a burning house and difficult relationships. I didn't initially realise it was narrated by a woman, and when I did, I didn't realise which one!
THE GOVERNORS OF WYOMING
A poetic, long short story (with chapter headings). I liked the telling more than the story itself, which concerns some eco warriors and leaves the reader to ponder whether ends justify the means.
55 MILES TO THE GAS PUMP
A very short story of a small-town crazy.
I knew this exquisite story well from the film, and the two are very similar. It is a story of unexpected and irresistible passion, longing and loss - understated and never graphic. Jack and Ennis meet, lust and love one summer, and meet up over the years, despite starting more conventional families. "The brilliant charge of their infrequent couplings was darkened by the sense of time flying, never enough time, never enough." But the '60s (and even '70s) weren't as swingin' as we're led to believe, certainly in their communities, so "nothing ended, nothing begun, nothing resolved". In the interim, "What J remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand was... the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger."
It happens to concern homosexual love between cowboys, starting in the 1960s, but it could just as easily be any taboo relationship.
The clipped but run-on sentences are not as extreme as is sometimes the case in The Shipping News (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), but they are naturalistic and colloquial. For example, "The horse drank and J dismounted, scraped icy water up in his hand, crystalline drops falling from his fingers, hi mouth and chin glistening wet." They also include representations of dialect, such as "ornery" and using "a" for "of" (as in the title, Pair a Spurs).
The main power comes in descriptions of the landscape (see quotes, below), but there are some quirkier offerings. For example, a radio announcer "who pronounced his own name as though he had discovered a diamond in his nostril": what on earth does that mean, and why does it work?
Men in Wyoming often have strange names, apparently, including (but not limited to): Ideal, Pet, Bliss, Diamond, Pearl, Mero, Rasmussen, Shy, Aladdin (though there was at least a reason for that), Car, Train, Pleasant, Elk, Zeeks and Fount!
QUOTES (mainly about the Wyoming landscape)
* "The full moon rose, an absurd visage balanced in his rear-view mirror, above it curled a wig of cloud, filamented edges like platinum hairs."
* "The country poured open on each side... landforms shaped true to the past."
* "There was muscle in the wind... a great pulsing artery of the jet-stream swooping down... The snow snakes writhing across the asphalt."
* "With the lapping subtlety of the incoming tide the shape of the ranch began to gather in his mind."
* "He traveled against curdled sky... The light was falling out of the day."
* "He didn't have anything against X except that he was a humorless fascist who picked his nose and left pliant knobs of snot on the steering wheel"!
* "A murderer she might be but no one could say her house wasn't clean"!
* "The afternoon light was the same color of lemon juice."
* Something was "her fault through the osmosis of guilt".
* "The smile lay over his face as if it had been screwed on."
* "You can stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses... grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky - provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is lie a claw in the gut."
* "He had a rancher's expectation of disaster."
* "Scrotal circumference is damn important" - not a phrase I have ever read before!
* She "was dissolving. It was too far to anything... She had eaten from a plateful of misery."
* "Simian arms whose wrists no shirt cuffs would ever kiss."
* "You don't leave [Wyoming] until you have to."
* A returner "maybe suffering some perverse need for animosity which he did find here."
* Middle aged women, "both of them burning at a slower rate than J, but in their own desperate ways also disintegrating into drifts of ash."
* "Clean arcs divided the windshield into a diptych, and their faces flared through the glass."
* "Metronomic shadows of telephone poles."
* "the point in reminiscence where their lives had diverged and superficial accounts rather than shared intimacies were the most that could be expected."
* Of eco warriors: "together they did harm where W said it would do most good."
* Papaya are "womb-shaped fruits with their middles full of seeds."
* "A wash of shame, an intention to do it again."
* "The sky showed a scraped nakedness, hard, and with a stain along the south western horizon from the Utah refineries."
* "This business with WW... served him as the balance column in the ledger of his own evil doings."
* He "lets a panel of the dream slide forward. If he does not force his attention on it, it might stoke the day."
* "The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken cloud-light."
* "Their bedroom was full of the smell of old blood and milk and baby shit, and the sounds were of squalling and sucking... all reassuring of fecundity and life's continuance to one who worked with livestock."
* "They stayed in the little apartment which he favored because it could be left at any time."
* "A slow corrosion worked between E and A, no real trouble, just widening water."
* "The boneless blue [sky] was so deep, said J, that he might drown looking up."
* "at the top of a steep stair that had its own climbing rhythm."
Notes are private!
Feb 03, 2014
Jan 17, 2014