Elizabeth Gowing is a writer who is new to me and her current book is not my usual reading. I was sent a copy of The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife to review,Elizabeth Gowing is a writer who is new to me and her current book is not my usual reading. I was sent a copy of The Rubbish-Picker’s Wife to review, which is my disclosure statement – and on my usual basis I said I’d read the book, write a review and ask the author if she was happy for me to publish it, but I wouldn’t change anything I thought or felt about the book – all that would happen is she could ask me NOT to publish.
It’s an interesting question why I accepted the book at all. Partly because as the former CEO of a number of charities and think tanks, the premise interested me, partly, I think, because the snippets of Gowing’s writing I found online were fascinating: precise, very British (as in restrained but candid) and yet profoundly honest about her reactions to the places she finds herself in.
I’m glad to say I found the book rewarding. There are three reasons it was a compelling read for me:
The subject matter fascinated me
It’s beautifully crafted
The stories Gowing tells are sometimes humorous and sometimes emotionally charged, but always rendered with delicacy and precision.
One of the dilemmas that Gowing explores is the micro-macro approach – should we install water pipes to help people have better facilities to wash and do laundry or should we train them to become water engineers and plumbers so they can develop their own communities? It’s a debate I remember having every week for several decades, or so it felt, at the UN, at DFID, at EU funding meetings, with individual benefactors, with donor agencies …. it was draining. Because Gowing gives us anecdotes that explore this dilemma, it becomes real and vivid again, and allows us, the reader, to begin to appreciate some of the policy decisions that charities, NGOs and government bodies make daily around health, poverty and development. The answer, by the way, is both – do both, and do them well.
Another thing that struck me about the book was an early statement about the process of educating children excluded from school in Fushë Kosovë, a part of Kosovo with intense poverty and deprivation for complex reasons. As Gowing says, “We had the same trouble I’ve had in every primary school geography lesson I’ve ever taught of understanding whether Prishtina is in Kosovo or Kosovo is in Prishtina and the sheer implausibility of being able to put your finger right over Fushë Kosovë – blotting out this very building from the map. If you’re going to rely on education to give you a place in the world you can’t rely only on maths, literacy and English”. It’s hard for us to imagine a worldview that doesn’t have maps, that doesn’t extend beyond walking distance and that can’t work out whether a town is bigger than a country or not. It’s also very easy to assume that the internet age and mobile connectivity has destroyed this isolation, but it hasn’t, in my experience. The problem with deprivation is that it prevents people having the very tools that would remove deprivation. You may indeed have a mobile phone, but if you bought it from a market stall and it runs on black-market unlocking, you’re unlikely to have the time, money or knowledge to check out your village on Google Earth and get a sense of global perspective!
Even though I worked in this field for some years, I’d forgotten how intractable it can be. Gowing’s battles to get the children accepted for school are beautifully rendered without judgement but with a real sense of outrage that there can still be places in Europe where universal literacy is an aim, but not a practical goal. I’d forgotten too how intense the relationships are when people expect to live and die in a house, in a village, in a community that their parents also lived and died in. Gowing delineates that too … the endless ramifications of community relationships for good, and for ill. A woman has her IUD removed because her spiritual adviser says she should, and then gets pregnant when another child will definitely go hungry and cause the other children to go hungry too. It’s easy to get angry about such accounts, but the truth is, that spiritual adviser will be there for the family when they grow and have children of their own – but the family planning clinic might not be!
Something I would have liked more of is Gowing herself. She has real doubt about her ability to help, about her role, about whether she’s a do-gooder and a busybody … this level of doubt and enquiry into motive helped make the book rounded and honest. She also had some health issues that I wish she’d talked a little more more about – very few people in the aid and humanitarian world get out unscathed; my own health impacts include: pneumonia and septicaemia in Mexico, Helicobacter virus and bleeding ulcers in India and chronic fatigue syndrome in either Sweden or Denmark, not sure which because I lost a chunk of memory that’s never come back! Of course my own background makes me want to know more about Gowing’s experiences but I think most readers probably would have wanted a little more of this very human frailty to be explained and explored too.
I really recommend this book, even if it’s not your regular reading material. I found it both fascinating and frightening and I felt confident I was being invited to enter a lived experience. This is not a book written after a month somewhere, by some hipster wannabe journalist who’s read Eat, Pray, Love and jumped on the bandwagon. It’s a deep, honest, tender and sometimes self-doubting account of the reality of absolute poverty and how we can all do a little more today, and every day, to alleviate the poverty and suffering of those right on our doorstep. If I sound preachy, don’t be put off – this is fine reading in the best tradition of Victorian travellers, it’s subtle, considered and honest and the fact that it has a deep and impassioned message simply enhances and shapes this excellent, beautifully written narrative....more
I’ve just shared a YouTube video of Lars Andersen demolishing Hollywood archery myths. I love that kind of thing - the nerd in me is enchanted by primI’ve just shared a YouTube video of Lars Andersen demolishing Hollywood archery myths. I love that kind of thing - the nerd in me is enchanted by primary research, by monastic dedication to debunking falsehood and destroying comfort zones. I love ‘guy' things like pull ups and archery and killing, cleaning and cooking prey (although I can only do one of those things (I’ll let you guess which). And I also love ballet and embroidery and extreme hairstyling (although only one of those things is possible for me too).
Literature contains those same extremes. I know I’m not the only person who felt sad to reach the last page of Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety - but I might be the only one who thought the book could have been longer! By contradiction, I also love extraordinary brevity and ellipticism, which is why, when I learned that Zoetrope contemporary and fellow writer Avital Gad Cykman had a flash fiction collection out, I ordered a copy.
Life In, Life Out, is a brief and punchy collection, described as ‘spirited’ on the cover. I’d say that understates the case, ‘possessed’ could be as accurate. Gad-Cykman’s protagonists mutate, escape, destroy and undermine. Her settings dissolve, collapse, burn and transmute. Emotions tumble, implode and shape-shift like desert mirages. Nothing can be trusted. Events make demands, but once those demands are met their nature changes. One of my favourite sentences from the collection involves the behaviour of some kind of weevil (or maybe demon) horde that infests the foodstuffs in a larder. “They appeared here and there, as if calling for our fists to come down on them, which we did with the righteousness of a stoned surfer catching his nightmare policeman smoking dope.”
Tricked, inveigled or exasperated into reaction, Gad-Cykman’s characters then discover that the scenery blurs, the dialogue changes and some kind of abandonment results. The recurring theme, for me, is the inevitable aloneness of those who try to make things happen, which is balanced by the chosen isolation of those who chose not to. It doesn’t seem to matter which course is taken, in this world of tightly-compressed stories, everybody loses something.
It’s not depressing though - the small, condensed worlds that are left barren by the events still throb with colour and incident. Stark weather illuminates their emptied stages and remaining observers are struck by the rich mystery of what remains.
Whilst flash fiction of this nature eludes me as a writer, I adore it as a reader. Tiny mosaic words, punched together in bright, pitiless narratives, pile up in this book like a collection of beaded amulets that serve to protect from nothing because in the very act of reading a sense of hopeless resignation to a harsh world infiltrates the reader, flash by flash. Gad-Cykman celebrates the power of betrayal - by others, of dreams, by and of life itself and lays out the brilliance of what is gained - the clarity of seeing what is left when illusions are gone.
Like many another of Mantel's dedicated readers, I let Wolf Hall sit for a few days before opening it. Could she move back to historical fiction afterLike many another of Mantel's dedicated readers, I let Wolf Hall sit for a few days before opening it. Could she move back to historical fiction after so many years and would she have the magisterial power that she'd demonstrated in A Place Of Greater Safety?
I needn't have worried. Wolf Hall, the first of two novels chronicling the life of Thomas Cromwell, is superb. The pacing is excellent, the massive historic cast is deftly handled but above all we learn to love Cromwell, the blacksmith's son, often considered 'a devil' in his lifetime, and to appreciate his gifts and skills, his weaknesses and his desires.
Read it if you love the Tudors, if you enjoy beautiful writing and if you're a fan of Mantel - you will not be disappointed....more
This was take or leave in story terms: not the best conjunction of a serialised story and a standalone, but the artwork was stonking - worth turning tThis was take or leave in story terms: not the best conjunction of a serialised story and a standalone, but the artwork was stonking - worth turning the pages just for the great illustrations and some really well thought out lettering. An excellent conjunction of talents, somewhat let down by the mismatched stories....more
There are those who say 'good books' must be difficult to read. In general I don't agree with that, but in this case, this book is both good, in severThere are those who say 'good books' must be difficult to read. In general I don't agree with that, but in this case, this book is both good, in several senses, and difficult to read, in several senses.
The difficult part is both structural and moral - the first third of the book is written as a memoir: the son of a woman who is clearly emotionally troubled and distant from her husband and child begins to explore her past in the hope of discovering what has caused her to behave so painfully. His discovery is of a love affair, back in the Second World War, in Prague and its terrible, beautiful, tormented progress and eventual disastrous conclusion makes up the other two thirds of the book.
This makes the book uneven. The first part is strongly disassociated and both nostalgic and diffident, the rest is immediate and powerfully emotional. The child, grown to a man, is a little pathetic and often uninteresting to the reader, while the mother and her lover are strongly delineated and morally acute. Sometimes, reading the second section with the first in mind, it's like having one shoe on and one foot bare, it just feels very odd.
But the good parts of this book more than repay the effort the reader makes. The issues involved: maternal love versus the love of equals, the morality of wartime, the passion that people can feel when their lives are under threat, the several forms of acute courage displayed by various characters, the evocation of Prague ... all these are masterly but never bravura. The tone of the book is gentle, and this gentle and quiet pace allows an accretion of tension that is so subtle that you don't realise you're feeling it until you stop reading for a moment and feel how tightly you're holding the pages and know that you have to keep reading to find out what happens.
And what happens is truly heartbreaking. What Slouka achieves with this constrained pace and palate is an overwhelming sense of inevitability that carries you through the end of the novel with absolute certainty that you've never read a better love story, or a greater tragedy....more
As ever, and with sadness, Dibden satisfies on so many levels that I hardly know how to express the sharp and bittersweet pleasures of being with AureAs ever, and with sadness, Dibden satisfies on so many levels that I hardly know how to express the sharp and bittersweet pleasures of being with Aurelio Zen as he fails in one relationship after another, misjudges a serial murder case, and fights to avoid ending up in Mafia territory because he's the essential coward we all know hides inside us.
The sadness comes from knowing that Dibden will never give us another Zen novel, and that Aurelio's failures and escapes, brilliant stratagems and hasty misreadings are at an end. But in this novel, wrapped in the history of World War Two and the arcana of wine production, he's reached a wonderful vintage...more
Sometimes reviewing books can be a solitary and frightening experience. When I ordered The Great Lover, I knew I was taking a risk. I’d first contacteSometimes reviewing books can be a solitary and frightening experience. When I ordered The Great Lover, I knew I was taking a risk. I’d first contacted Jill Dawson to tell her how much I’d admired her novels Wild Boy and Fred and Edie, and we’d sort of kept in touch, so what was I to say if I didn’t feel the same about The Great Lover?
There was already a strike against it in my mind. Rupert Brooke, who is one of the two central characters in the novel, has always been my least favourite of that generation of poets. I’ve never felt the appeal of his work in the way that others seem to.
And so I sat down to read, feeling nervous. In the big scheme of things it wouldn’t matter much if I didn’t like the novel. It certainly wouldn’t affect Jill, who is garlanded with awards. But there was a question that everybody has to deal with at some point, that question of personal integrity – if I didn’t find merit in the novel, I felt I was going to have to say so, just because I had, in the past, expressed my feelings about other novels. To damn with faint praise would be hypocritical, to remain silent would feel like an abdication of my tiny role as a writer and reviewer. And while it is a tiny role, it is one that I’ve made for myself and I didn’t want to corrupt or denigrate it.
And yet, Dawson has pulled it off. Through the creation of a young maid, Nell Golightly, whose views of, and relationship with, Rupert Brooke, counterpoint his narration, we see Brooke as an attractive, often weak, but always original character. We see how he might appeal to a young woman, and to young men, and yet how his burnished good looks, his charming manner and his earnest desire to improve the world could have been an appalling burden for a young man trying to understand the world, and his place in it.
Nell is no cypher – while she dismissed Suffragists as not caring for the working woman, or understanding their real needs, she is full-blooded, canny and quite able to, as she puts it, ‘face facts’. The facts that she faces at the end of her life are the possibility that Brooke had an illegitimate child in Tahiti, as well as definitely being a Sodomite in Grantchester. And the facts that she reveals, as she recounts her short time spent observing the Brooke circle as a maid of all work, cast an entirely imaginary, but utterly believable, light on the young and troubled Rupert that allows the narrative leap into areas of his life that we know little of.
As always, Jill Dawson’s work is lush – her sense of place and season makes every scene utterly concrete, and her poet’s eye for telling detail gives an almost emblematic value to certain aspects of the narrative, in particular the honey that Nell makes both at home in the Fens and in Grantchester as a beekeeper’s assistant, and the implements of household drudgery: the kettles and fires and bedclothes and polish, that make Nell’s life meaningful.
And in the end I did love it. Not, perhaps Brooke, although I certainly like him better than I did, but Nell is compelling, convincing and fascinating. It’s transporting and lovely and a subtle psychological portrait of a man and a time that I feel I know better now, and care more about, than ever I did before. Is it worth reading – absolutely – you will not waste a minute you spend with this novel! ...more
This was the first time I've read anything by Raban and on the basis of this book I will be going back for more - and better prepared this time!
ThereThis was the first time I've read anything by Raban and on the basis of this book I will be going back for more - and better prepared this time!
There are no spoilers here, don't worry, but the book - especially its blurb - wrongfooted me. By a third of the way through I was sure I was heading for the dark heart of Seattle so when it ends on a relatively upbeat note (all the major characters get something of what they want, if not all of it) I was really rather surprised.
Raban writes with verve and a love of words that gives a lot of his work a manic energy reminiscent of Michael Moorcock's Mother London, he likes to play with words and that is sometimes a little intrusive, but his love for his characters and his ability to fillet a city in the boom years and lay out the hidden mechanisms stops it being a pain.
His Chinese character resonated with entrepreneurs I met in Beijing a few years ago and the dissolution of the marriage between his protagonist Tom and wife Beth is neatly delineated. Their son, Finn, is an interesting character who seems to be heading for darkness too but is redeemed by that most venerable of discoveries, the love of a good (or at least sometimes good) puppy!
I did enjoy this novel, would have enjoyed it more if I hadn't been misled by the jacket notes, and I really liked the energy and enthusiasm of the material which is a fantastic contrast to the morose cynicism of many contemporary writers. I think it's given me a yen to visit Seattle, so definitely Raban has worked some magic on me....more
**spoiler alert** I wanted to like this book for many reasons but in the end, dislike of bad philosophy won out over sentiment.
Mark Rowlands buys a w**spoiler alert** I wanted to like this book for many reasons but in the end, dislike of bad philosophy won out over sentiment.
Mark Rowlands buys a wolf cub on a whim. Brenin, the wolf, teaches him many things, but not to be a decent human being: that only comes after the wolf has died, having been dragged around America as a 'chick magnet' spent six months in quarantine, been transported to and fro in Ireland and France and generally not having had nearly as much benefit from their shared existence as Rowlands seems to have had. But even Brenin fares better than any dog owner who comes into their compass - it's okay for the wolf to terrify and physcially harm both dogs and owners because dogs are only 'pets' while Brenin is his own being (apart from the quarantine, the being traipsed around, the enforced vegetarianism that Rowlands embarks on for self and wolf etc).
But my objection to the book is not just the wolf welfare aspect of the narrative. 'Tending our own gardens' may be poor philosophy but at least we end up with cabbages, what Rowlands wants to achieve here is to teach other people how to tend their own gardens while his own is full of weeds. There's a fundamental flaw in his argument about the Hobbesian compact for example; while he says we (humans) cannot imagine a non-existing thing and therefore can't be said to have invested in a compact before its existence, he's spent the whole of an earlier chapter explaining how pet animals live in a magical universe in which previously non-existing things like lifts, food, telephones make existing things: rooms, full bellies, people's voices, appear. It seems to me that you can't have it both ways. If a wolf cannot comprehend a non-existing thing and yet the thing can exist and be classed as magic, surely a society can imagine a non-existing thing and class it as a social compact?
Enough carping perhaps. I didn't love the book and felt less respect for Rowlands than I'd hoped to. He may be right to say that what distinguishes the simian from the lupine is deceit, and that the wolf is nobler than the ape, but his arguments, drawn from one wolf and one drunk, don't make compelling philosophy and at best make maudlin memoir....more
An excellent book and a worthy Booker winner - not to say that this isn't unevenly written, because it is, but the sheer power of teh narrative here,An excellent book and a worthy Booker winner - not to say that this isn't unevenly written, because it is, but the sheer power of teh narrative here, exposing a side of Indian life that is seen by every visitor but rarely understood or explored, is impressive.
Adiga manages the first three quarters of the narrative with bravura, if things fall apart towards the end, I feel it's because he wanted more time to live with his anti-hero protagonist and that, perhaps, this novel, written a decade later in Adiga's life, would have started in a very different place, covering less of a lifetime and dwelling deeper on salient points of experience.
There is an astonishing bravura word game played in the novel, which I won't give any spoilers about, or hints to, but the ridiculousness of the the term 'entrepreneur' when applied to any old business person is punctured with such a sure hand here that the book is worth reading for that alone.
And in light of Mumbai's recent horrific attacks, this book goes a long way to explaining why such terrorism happens, and why the 'West' is so reviled in some sections of society.
This is a book I remember from childhood but read again every couple of years for sheer pleasure. Set in a Sussex countryside that has all but disappeThis is a book I remember from childhood but read again every couple of years for sheer pleasure. Set in a Sussex countryside that has all but disappeared, it tells of Martin, who must win the loyalty of six milkmaids who guard their love-sick mistress. He tells stories that win the milkmaids to his side, so that he can then woo the girl they've been hiding from him. Farjeon's language is lyrical and witty, and the stories are six little gems of the fairytale genre. For a child who loves reading, this book is a must. For an adult who's still fond of fairy tales, it's equally good. ...more