Friday, 28 December 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry ~ by Raphel Joyce

To say that I liked this book is an understatement: it made me reconsider what it is to be married, to grow older, to love a child and to be true to oneself, which is no small feat in a book of less than three hundred pages.
In this, her first novel, Rachel Joyce writes about the life and  journey of a newly-retired Englishman, Harold Fry.  As with all good books, the journey is symbolical as well as literal, but in this novel, it is more literal than most.  As such, this text is the equivalent of a road movie, but in novel form, as Harold decides to up and leave his safe, suburban home and walk, in his flimsy yachting shoes, from one end of Britain to the other.  This 'unlikely pilgrimage', as the title suggests, is an act of faith, in the hope that an old friend, Queenie Hennessy, suffering from terminal cancer, will not die, not until he has finished his journey of 627 miles at least, not until he says goodbye.
The book's premise is joyfully simple, and we enter into the spirit of hope as we trundle along, from town to town, seeing the sights and meeting the people that Harold meets, each with their own story, sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes heart-warming.
Yet this is not just Harold's story, but also the story of Maureen; his silent, unfeeling wife.  Harold tells her he is off to post a letter to Queenie saying, ' I'm only going to the end of the road'.  Indeed, this is what he literally does, taking us with him, to the very end of the long, long road to Berwick-On-Tweed, and the metaphorical 'road's end' of every relationship.
But a road does not only stretch before us, it also stretches out behind and it is necessary for Harold, Maureen and the reader to travel back, into the past, to discover how this couple, once deeply in love with one another, came undone.  Their story could be anyone's story, but Joyce tells it in such a beautiful, piecemeal fashion, that the truth, when it is suddenly revealed, leaves us moved with compassion.
Simply put, Maureen misses Harold, just as much as he misses her.  The distance between them forces them to re-evaluate their relationship and to forgive themselves, and each other, for past mistakes.
Maureen has no reason to bang the laundry basket about in annoyance any-more, once Harold is gone.  She has to learn to pay bills and realises that she needs her husband.  We are all guilty of taking loved-ones for granted and this novel reminds us to appreciate those we love, to love them despite their foibles, and because of them.  I suspect every married couple I know could benefit from having a copy of this novel on the bookshelf.
Something too must be said about Joyce's exceptional gift as a writer.  Although a novice at writing novels, she has written countless radio plays for the BBC, and you can tell.  Her dialogue flows with such fluidity and realism that the characters seem to live and breath.  How could Harold Fry be a mere fiction?  Having read Joyce's prose, it seems an impossibility.  Her descriptions and metaphors are wonderfully original and crisp.  Speaking of Harold she writes that his clothes were folded, 'as small as an apology'.  Of his wife Harold notes, 'Mothering had come so naturally to Maureen, it was as if another woman had been waiting inside her all along waiting to slip out'.    The beauty of the prose is at times breath-taking, and makes you want to pause and enjoy the moment, but you dare not delay, for fear of delaying Harold on his journey.  This is why I recommend that you return and re-read the novel as soon as you have finished it the first time.

There is certainly sadness in this novel, the sadness of loss, of growing-up and of saying goodbye.  Yet there is so much love here too: the love of friendship, romance and truth.  The love of being a child, a parent, a wife and a husband, it is all here, which is why the book is ultimately about being human and is a welcome reminder to us all to seize the day and share what love we can with whomever we can.
And so, this is a fitting book for this Christmas season, for yourself or those you love.  It may stop your silent wish to run at your husband with the turkey knife, or storm off into the snow, leaving a house full of relations behind, and for that alone I heartily recommend it.  And although it sits, now finished, on my shelf, I know I will return to Harold Fry again and again, for in him I have found a friend that I will treasure always.

A Blooming Brilliant Read.

P.S.  Rachel Joyce has written a companion book for this novel - 'The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy, which you might enjoy.  

Thursday, 1 November 2012

The Girl You Left Behind ~ by Jojo Moyes

I've just spent the last 24 hours immersed in 'The Girl You Left Behind', by Jojo Moyes, and I feel just like you might expect to feel, having been pulled between two different centuries... stretched and somewhat dazed. 
The first quarter of the book is set in France before and during World War One, and follows the life of Sophie Lefevre, whose husband Edouard is away fighting at the front. She lives with her sister Helene and her children and their brother Aurelien, in a small hotel that they run together, both women waiting and longing for their husbands to return.  Edouard Lefevre is a talented painter and it is the portrait that he paints of his wife Sophie which is the link that joins the past to the present day and gives the book its title. 
The rest of the book follows the painting's new owner, Liv Halston whose husband David gave it to her on their honeymoon.  Now a widow, Liv clings to the painting as a reminder of her dead husband and when the artist's family request to have it returned to them, believing that it to have been stolen by the Germans during the war, a hard fought legal battle commences to decide who is the rightful owner of 'The Girl who you Left Behind'. 

Of course, love is a central theme in this book, as both Sophie and Liv consider what they are prepared to sacrifice for love.  Yet, for me, what is really interesting  about the book are the scenes describing life in occupied France during World War One.  Here we get a glimpse of what life was like for the French women who kept the home fires burning (if they were lucky enough to have wood!) while their men fought at the Front.  You were completely at the mercy of the German soldiers, who could commender your every possession for their own use, take the food from your mouth if they so desired, or dragged you from home in the middle of the night just because they did not (or worse still, did) like the look of you.  As in all conflicts, it is the women and children who are most susceptible to threat.  Moyes captures this vulnerability brilliantly in the novel. And the threats do not just come from the enemy.  Jealous neighbours are more than capable of terrorising their fellow citizens, especially when hunger grumbles in their stomachs.  The feeling of hunger pervades every page of the French section of this book, and I was more than grateful to eat some fresh white bread this morning, having read repeated descriptions of sticky, black bread, too hard to cut and too disgusting to eat.
For some reason, I kept forgetting that the book was set in 1916 and found myself imagining the year was more like 1940.  The events that we are witness to in this book appear reminiscent of the labour camps in Poland during the implementation of Hitler's Final Solution.  People are packed into trains and denied their basic human rights, old women are shot in the street to terrorise and humiliate whole towns into submission, women are punched in the head with rifle butts for showing less that expected courtesy to German soldiers and yet there is not a Swastika in sight!
It makes it all the more bizarre to consider that the French, and the rest of the world, allowed this horror to happen all over again a generation later.  The brutal suffering of central characters was quite disturbing, although enlightening, and almost made me stop reading.  But then, there is often little human kindness in times of war.  I am certainly glad that I read on.
The title of the book seems a little forced to me, and by that I mean it does not really sound like the name of a painting.  Thematically though, it suits the novel very well as there are so many girls left behind in this book.  Sophie and Helene are both left behind when their husbands leave for the Front, while Liv can also be so classed when her husband David dies.  The 'you' of the title could also refer to the German Kommandant who falls in love with Sophie and the painting during the occupation, or to Paul, Liv's new boyfriend, whose job as the investigator of the art theft means that he and she are on opposite sides of the legal battle. Yet, there is another younger girl who is left behind, and that is Edith Bethune who is cruelly separated from her mother in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in this book.  Perhaps the novel title ultimately refers to her?  You will have to read the book to discover the answer for yourself. 

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Novel in the Viola ~ by Natasha Solomons

When my Kindle announced that I was 97% through this novel, I dreaded the last 3% so much, that I had to go for a little walk to postpone the pleasure.  'The Novel in the Viola' by Natasha Solomon' is such a delightful book, that I hated finishing it.  By the time I had clicked the 'next page button' for the last time, I had already decided that I would give the book to everyone I know this Christmas.  And it will make the perfect gift too, encompassing love lost and love found; an old house and a brooding hero; a secret, and an attic.  What's not to like?

Perhaps it is because so much of this story is inspired by real events; the forced eviction of Jews from Austria prior to World War Two; the separation of families; the uncertainty about those left behind etc., which makes this such a compelling read.  Natasha Solomons' author's note tells us that the story was inspired by her great-aunt Gabi Landau, who fled anti-semitism in Europe to work as a 'mother's help', in England.  Either way, the story of Elise Landau, the novel's narrator, has us captivated from the very start.

Like that other, more famous, yet equally put-upon female narrator, Jane Eyre, Elise has to repress her vivacity and true inner-spirit to fit in.  Where Jane cries out in the gardens at Thornfield Hall, Elsie shouts into the sea, against the injustice she and her family have experienced.  Yet here, it is not mad Bertha who sleeps in the tower of the big house, but Elise herself, alone in the garret, doomed to the monotony of a servants life, where her poor knowledge of the English language ensures her silence in a way that even Jane did not experience.

And the similarities with 'Jane Eyre' do not stop there.  For a start, the tall, brooding owner of the large estate of Tyneford is called Mr Rivers, the very same name as Mr Rochester's rival and Jane's cousin, StJohn.  Both Mr Rivers and Mr Rochester have past loves and are men of the world, in stark contrast to the innocent Elise and Jane.  The houses of both novels play a huge roll in their respective stories, not merely by providing the setting, but by giving for the heroines a safe place in a time of danger, a place where they blossom and which they come to call home.  The houses suffer similar mis-haps and both Mr Rivers and Mr Rochester risk their lives for others, revealing themselves to be true heroes in their different ways.

In 'Jane Eyre', our heroine has moments of telepathic imaginings, where she visualises what is happening many miles away, as when she hears Rochester's voice call to her on the wind.  In 'The Novel in the Viola', Elsie uses her imagination to visualise her parents, her aunts and sister, chat and sing, like they used to do before Hitler made the world go dark.  This ingenious ploy allows the author to peek into different worlds that are beyond the scope of the first person narrator, and without having to always rely on letters to fill in the gaps.

Jane and Elsie are alike in other ways too.  Both take great enjoyment in finding freedom out in the natural world, each confined in their own way, one by the strict social codes of Victorian England, the other by tight controls over alien non-nationals in wartime.  At times, it feels like Elise is living in a different century as she walks through Tyneford House, surrounded by the ancient panelling and portraits, in the dark of the blackout, lit only by soft candlelight.  On the estate too she and Mr Rivers could be characters out of a Hardy novel, working side by side on the land, bringing in the crops by hand, fuel rationing putting pay to any mechanical assistance, sharing a picnic on an obliging soft mossy bank.  It would seem idyllic but for the duelling aeroplanes battling overhead.

Yet, there is something more, however arbitrary, which links 'Jane Eyre' and 'The Novel in the Viola',  and that is their glorious depiction of the English landscape: the sumptuous sunsets; the luminous array of flowers and the glory of dappled light pouring through the trees.  Yet, here is where Solomons departs from Bronte, the former making an art of it, providing the hungry reader with page upon page of sensual description. Sometimes Solomons verges on the edge of poetry, waxing lyrical about the sea and sky, fields and hills.  Reminiscent of the old fisherman covered  in sequin-like fish scales in Elizabeth's poem 'At The Fishhouses' she writes:
'An old man, his hair as white as dandelion feathers, sat on a lobster pot mending a piece of netting with a rusted knife.'
What a wonderful description of his hair, so vulnerable yet magical too.

There is something of the painter here too, each page replete with descriptive similes and metaphors.  Once, when Elise is in fear for her life, she imagines that she is being chased not by a German, but by 'Black dogs with white teeth and wide red jaws. They weren’t dogs but wolves escaped from my old fairy tale book.'  It is no co-incidence that the red, black and white colours described here are also those of the infamous Nazi flag.  Her narrative is so visual, in fact, that I feel as if I have walked through the vast county estate, opening up the seventeen gates as I pass along, have felt the wind cut at my cheeks and have tasted salt from the sea on my lips.

And so this is what I wish for my family and friends this Christmas,when too much food and drink have been taken: a brisk walk in the fresh air of the English countryside close to dark, at a time when life seemed more simple, but in truth, was heartbreakingly complicated; sad but utterly, utterly beautiful.

P.S.  'The Novel in the Viola' is also published as 'The House at Tyneford'  in some territories.

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Dinner ~ by Herman Koch

One might be forgiven for thinking that this book is merely about food and dining out.  While Dutch author, Herman Koch's novel, 'The Dinner', does spend a lot of time considering those arts, the book is primarily about families; what keeps them together and what rips them apart.  The title refers to a seemingly innocuous meal in a restaurant attended by two brothers, Paul and Serge Lohman and their respective wives, Clare and Babette.  However, as the plot unravels, we discover that they are meeting to discuss a problem with their sons.  The teenage cousins have broken the law and bit by bit the true horror of their behaviour is revealed to the reader.  Yet, the really disturbing thing is how the parents react to their sons' behaviour; how they cover up for the boys and defend their actions.

As such, this is a book about deception.  Almost every character, we discover, is not as we expected them to be.  It is most unsettling for the reader, but deeply compelling.  We dread what may be coming, but we cannot help but be enthralled.  After all, the situation is something we can all relate to: family loyalty.

Kock seems to be considering how we can never really know someone, even those with  whom we have the closest bonds.  Even the narrator, Paul, is questionable.  We think we can trust him, but even he is capable of shocking the reader with his opinions and behaviour.  It is unsettling, and is meant to be.  It emphasises the author's fascination with trust and supports his idea that you can never be certain about other people; everyone is capable of deception.

The novel begins with the mundane details involved when going out to dinner.  Paul helps his wife choose what to wear, is careful to order the right food from the menu and not to arrive too early.  Just when we think it was a bad decision to start reading the book, the truth behind the meal comes to light.  It is tantalising.   From there, the plot continues to get more and more involved, until you feel as much a part of the story as the parents who face the extraordinary dilemma before them.
Koch is also contemplating how blood is thicker than water.  This idea is most apparent when we consider the character of adopted boy Beau, whose position in the hierarchy of the family is different from blood relatives.  Although the adopted parents claim to love this African boy every bit as much as their own children, when push comes to shove, in an extreme situation, wouldn't the security of their birth child take precedence over the adopted child?

This is just one of the many questions prompted by this book.  In a way, the novel is actually about society and takes a probing look at the justice system, our morals and social bias.  Vagrants, sufferers of mental illness, paedophiles, cancer patients, politicians, mothers, fathers and sons all come under the microscope of this writer.  Is one life more valuable than another?  Isn't it the duty of a parent to protect their child?  Where should a parents duty lie when to do the right thing means relinquishing one's duty to one's child?  As the author takes the characters through these questions, the reader is forced to put themselves in the shoes of the offenders and their parents and made to consider:  what would I do in such a situation.

There is also the question of genetics and how children inherit so much from their parents.  Koch makes you wonder; if we could predict that our children would be born with a tendency to break the law, would we choose to terminate them in advance?  We are also forced to recognise that the behaviour of children is often directly related to the manner in which they were brought up and the example that their parents showed them.  Here we can see a direct correlation between Paul's violent tendency and his son's.

Time and time again Paul showed his son bad example, how people could be physically threatened  into submission.  As always, the parents are to blame, not only because they neglected to teach their children  right from wrong, but that they were genetically poorly programmed from conception.  This nature-nurture debate is at that heart of sociology and Koch cleverly forces us to consider these huge themes while keeping us on the edge of our seats.

Of course, I got it wrong.  This is not a simple book about a meal in a restaurant, but a book about society and the limits of decent behaviour when faced with the destruction of familial happiness and security.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

A Man Could Stand Up - by Ford Madox Ford (Parade's End Book 3)

This novel, the third in the Parade's End series, begins and ends on Armistice Day.  The rest of the book follows Valentine as she considers whether or not she should become Christopher's mistress, and Tietjens' experience of life at the Front. There, his mind jumps back and forth, dealing with the past and imagining a future with Valentine.  He becomes Officer in Command of a fine regiment of 'pals' and proves himself to be a capable leader of the men.  He worries that he is like Hamlet, unable to make a decision regarding Valentine, but ultimately he takes a stand.

This brings me to the title of the book - 'A Man Could Stand Up' which, as a metaphor for Teitjens' situation,works cleverly on many different levels.  Firstly and foremost it refers to the idea of an Englishman standing on a hill back home, enjoying the view.  Once, Christopher was such a man.  However, in the trenches, the last thing a soldier can possibly do is stand up on a hill; it would mean certain death.  As such, the image becomes a symbol of unattainable dreams, something forbidden.  Christopher longs to climb atop the trench and take in the view, just as he longs for a life with Valentine.  It later reflects the idea of being brave, of taking a stand against those who rob you of your reputation, rightful glory and inheritance.  It seems that all of Christopher's old friends have set out to steal either some or all of these things from him.  Sylvia, McMaster and General Champion, have combined together to undermine Tietjen's position, until he is virtually buried alive under their accusations and fabrications.  Christopher finally says:
 '  "You want to stand up! Take a look round..." He struggled for expression: "Like as if you wanted to breathe deep after bein' in a stoopin' posture for a long time!" .'
He has been maligned and taken advantage of for too long.  It is time for him to put himself first.  Indeed, this realisation comes in a literal blast of realisation when he is blown up in the trench and half buried alive with a fellow soldier.  He tells his hollering comrade that he cannot come to his aid until he has helped himself first.  It is time for him to walk on that hill, like he did that morning with Valentine, to show the world that 'a man could stand up'.

Through the character of Christopher, the author makes numerous observations about war; suggesting that the soldiers do not really wish any serious harm to befall their fellow soldiers, even if they are on the other side.  They do not hate them.  Instead, their hatred is aimed at those back in London who care little for the men at the Front: frustrating their efforts and at times even denying them sufficient food rations. He describes the blind terror experienced by these brave soldiers, as the thick noise surrounds them, making the earth itself shake:
'In the trench you could see nothing and noise rushed like black angels gone mad; solid noise that swept you off your feet... Swept your brain off its feet. Someone else took control of it. You became second-in-command of your own soul.'
 But they do not shirk from their duty but maintain their position because it is what is expected of them.  This is the most impressive thing about the novel; its depiction of life in the trenches, especially because the author lived through it himself.  How can the world forget the terror that these men lived through as millions of men faced each other on the battlefields?  Because of Madox Ford, at least some will remember.

'If you took six million men armed with loaded canes and stockings containing bricks or knives and set them against another six million men similarly armed, at the end of three hours four million on the one side and the entire six million on the other would be dead. So, as far as killing went, it really was a mug's game.'

It is amazing then that Madox Ford manages to add any beauty at all to the book.  Usually, the beauty is associated with Valentine.  Tietjens thinks about how 'she made the sunlight', and decides that he will forgo his position at Groby, his former life and friends, even the fine claret at the club, to take her as his own.  He says that when he remembers her, he recalls her mind.  Her physical body is not the inspiration of his love.  He longs to talk and talk and talk some more with her, as theirs is a meeting of minds and to do that would mean that they must live together.
As with the other books, there are moments of pure romance when this soldier turns his mind to Valentine.  Despite being snubbed by his general and being denied his Victoria Cross, Tietjens maintains his steadfast belief in the goodness of Valentine Wannop.  Even when they are thrown together by the wicked machinations of Edith McMaster or when Mrs Wannop pleads with him to think again about her daughter, he decides to stand up, to step out of the shadow of the old world, out of the hole that is duty and honour and take her by the hand as his chosen partner in life.

'He felt her being united to his by a current. He had always felt that her being was united to his by a current. This then was the day! The war had made a man of him! It had coarsened him and hardened him. There was no other way to look at it. It had made him reach a point at which he would no longer stand unbearable things.'

Finally, I must mention the wonderful visual descriptions in the novel that come rising from the darkness of war in so unexpected a fashion, that the reader is left gasping.  One such idea is when Tietjens notices the movement of swallows amid the chaos of battle:

'So myriads of swallows pursued him, swirling round and round him, their wings touching; for a matter of twenty yards all round and their wings brushing him and the tops of the thistles. And as the blue sky was reflected in the blue of their backs--for their backs were below his eyes--he had felt like a Greek God striding through the sea...'
Christopher is inspired by these brave little birds, who, being disturbed from their nests by the barrage of the big guns, fly to face the Germans, challenging their right to destroy.  Even the birds stand up for themselves, and so Christopher's course of action becomes clear.   He makes his decision:

'Tietjens was never going to live at Groby. No more feudal atmosphere! He was going to live, he figured, in a four-room attic-flat, on the top of one of the Inns of Court. With Valentine Wannop. Because of Valentine Wannop!'
A delightful irony is revealed when Tietjens admits that 'Fortunately, there was the heir... Otherwise he could not have gone with that girl!'.  How wonderful that the pregnancy-lie used by Sylvia to trap him, is what ultimately frees him and allows him to live with his beloved Valentine.  Such symmetry in this collection of novels  makes them all the more satisfying, and at a little less tragic somehow, to know that Teitjens will, in fact, never bring Valentine to Groby.

I will read on.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

No More Parades (Parade's End Book 2) ~ Ford Madox Ford

'When you came in the space was desultory, rectangular, warm after the drip of the winter night, and transfused with a brown-orange dust that was light. It was shaped like the house a child draws. Three groups of brown limbs spotted with brass took dim high-lights from shafts that came from a bucket pierced with holes, filled with incandescent coke, and covered in with a sheet of iron in the shape of a tunnel.'    FORD, FORD MADOX

This is how the second book of the 'Parade's End' teratology begins, and it sets the tone for the entire novel.  This book deals with Teitjen's time as a captain at a supplies depot, close to the Front during World War One.  He has left Valentine and England behind, but Sylvia, on the war-path, follows him to France and stirs up a world of trouble in the process.

However, though one could spend forever discussing the ins and out of their relationships, this blog post will focus on the aspect of the writer's style that took me by surprise: the ability of the human race to find beauty in the most unexpected of places.

It is with a painter's eye that he describes life on the front lines - a tiny speck of light, adds an additional, visual, dimension to the writing and lifts the world of the supply depot off the page.  It is not surprising to learn that Ford Madox was the maternal grandson of acclaimed Victorian painter Ford Madox Brown.   In 'No More Parades', Madox Ford reveals his own gift as a novelist-painter, who, with just one adjective, can illuminate an entire scene for our imaginations.

'Tietjens considered the sleeping army... That country village under the white moon, all of sackcloth sides, celluloid windows, forty men to a hut... That slumbering Arcadia was one of... how many? Thirty-seven thousand five hundred, say for a million and a half of men... But there were probably more than a million and a half in that base... Well, round the slumbering Arcadias were the fringes of virginly glimmering tents...'
 Not only does he create the somewhat heartbreaking yet beautiful image of the 'sleeping army', but he bathes the vision in a mixture of cold reality and magic by placing a 'white moon' overhead and by describing the endless lines of army tents as 'glimmering'.  That one adjective suggests all the vulnerability and transience of life for a soldier at the Front: like the light of a candle flame, the slightest breath is enough to extinguish it.  In naming it as a village, he calls up echoes of middle England, whose sons have all decamped to the battlegrounds of France; an uprooted English village, if not in term of place, then in terms of national identity.  It is an Arcadia, he tells us, a place celebrated as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness in Greek mythology, hardly apt when describing a landscape close to the Western Front, but that is how Madox Ford chooses to present it.  Perhaps it is the camaraderie of war, the mutual love felt by soldiers in wartime, that inspires him to describe the scene thus, or he is simply using the nocturnal hours of peace as a contrast to the horror of the day's fighting.  Indeed, there are many descriptions of moonlight reflecting silver on mounds of earth; stars, like pinpricks in the black sky, and so on.  Much of the book's action, it is clear, takes place in the dark.

This is in stark contrast to imagery associated with the female characters, Sylvia and Valentine.  Consider how he describes Mrs Tietjens:
'She appeared before him so extraordinarily bright and clear in the brown darkness that he shuddered: very tall, very fair... in a sheath gown of gold tissue, all illuminated, and her mass of hair, like gold tissue too, coiled round and round in plaits over her ears ...'  
She is positively glowing and never so much so when he remembers their last parting, the final parting as the had thought, when she left him in the middle of the night for Paddington Station.  He recalls her far in the distance, standing in a long room, the '...other end of which she had seemed a mere white phosphorescence...' .  She has almost disappeared in his memory, but he only recalls her glowing.

As for Valentine, her association with the fertile, natural world, continues the same from book one.  He says,
' ... He drifted with regret across the plain towards his country street of huts. One of them had a coarse evergreen rose growing over it. He picked a leaf, pressed it to his lips and threw it up into the wind...' That's for Valentine,' he said meditatively. 'Why did I do that?... Or perhaps it's for England...' .'
It is no coincidence that his memories of Valentine and England are intertwined, as he loves both with a deep passion.  Of course, in terms of symbolism, the rose is a long established emblem of England but so too is it associated with love and romance.  As such, it perfectly represents his two great loves.  The flower reminds him of home and home of Valentine.  A similar association occurs when, in a moment of heightened distress and trauma, a soldier, 0-Nine Morgan, dies in his arms.   Madox Ford brilliantly captures how the human mind deals with such moments, by shifting focus and thinking happier thoughts.  Of course, for Tietjens, that means Valentine.  As the sanitary orderlies do the unpleasant job of washing away the dead man's blood from Christopher's boots and under the table and chairs, Tietjen's mind dwells on Valentine:

'Obedient heart! Like the first primrose. Not any primrose. The first primrose. Under a bank with the hounds breaking through the underwood..... That was sentimental. But one might say one special flower. A man could say that. A man's job. She smelt like a primrose when you kissed her. But, damn it, he had never kissed her. So how did he know how she smelt! She was a little tranquil, golden spot.'
Here Valentine is described as smelling like a primrose, a delicate flower, again with a suggestion of 'rose'.  Yet she is associated with the first one of the season, his first true love, pure and delightful; set in a particular English setting, which we can imagine to be the grounds at Groby.  Note too, how she recalls a golden place, a precious home.

The images associated with both of these women are in stark contrast to the masculine, darkness of the soldier's life, as experienced by Tietjens.  It is no wonder that he clings so tightly to Sylvia as they dance at the camp, despite the fact that it is Sylvia and not Valentine.  Who would not be dazzled by such a light in so dark a place?  It strikes me as quite significant that women and the moon should play such a vital role in creating the atmosphere of the text, as so often the moon is perceived as a female entity itself.  Perhaps the author is commenting on the real power of women in the world, as distinct from the political power so desired by Valentine and the suffragettes in 'Some Do Not'.

Regardless of its symbolic meaning, there is certainly much visual beauty in this book.  Of course, the shifting voice of the narrators, and their fragmented internal conversations, reflects perfectly the inner lives of real people; their internal struggles and whisperings, their reasoning and motivations. Madox Ford masters all this.  Yet, for me, what I will remember most about this book, are the devastatingly beautiful moments, blazing, so unexpectedly, out of the darkness and forging precious nuggets of hope for us all.
'There was too much to think about... so that nothing at all stood out to be thought of. The sun was glowing. The valley of the Seine was blue-grey, like a Gobelin tapestry. Over it all hung the shadow of a deceased Welsh soldier. An odd skylark was declaiming over an empty field behind the incinerators' headquarters... An odd lark. For as a rule larks do not sing in December. Larks sing only when courting, or over the nest... 0 Nine Morgan was the other thing, that accounting for the prize-fighter! '

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Some Do Not (Parade's End Bk 1) ~ by Ford Madox Ford

If the measure of a book is how easily it transports you to another place, then Ford Madox Ford's novel, 'Some Do Not', is certainly a masterpiece.  I pulled back the curtains this morning and was surprised to see that I wasn't living in England in 1914.  I am not sure what I expected to see, army trucks lined up, gas-lit street lights, horse-drawn cabs perhaps, but my heart sank with the reality of rainy, suburban Dublin.

It is impossible to wait until the end of this four-novel series to write a review of 'Parade's End', in its entirety, and so I will do a diary blog post as I finish each individual book, beginning with the first.

 I understand now why Madox Ford is described as a Modernist writer, his place well-secured in the company of Woolf, Joyce and Conrad.  The narrative hops from one character's mind to another, but in such a deliciously revealing way, that the reader cares little for chronology.  What does a time-line have to do with the true meaning of a story anyhow?

By using this fragmented narrative style, we can see a scene from various people's point of view, until, ultimately, we get a sense of the truth of the matter, the truth of the story.  Like the glimpses of Tietjens' reflection, broken into many tiny pieces as the light shines from the multi-panelled window frame, the narrative of 'Some Do Not', is broken into many pieces.  Ultimately, we process the details and rebuild the story, into one, clear line, one clear truth.  Think of it like a diamond, with many sides, casting many reflections, but all the more beautiful for that.

In the character of Christopher Tietjens, we are given the embodiment of honesty, goodness and duty.  It seems all the more unexpected then, that he turns out to be the most romantic figure, that I have encountered in years.  By keeping his distance from Valentine Wannop, his academic equal and soul mate, he demonstrates the depth of his love.  It is the innocence and purity of their mutual feelings that is so moving and touching.  So much of the book takes place in the minds of the characters, in the silence of deep thought, that a verbal declaration of love is devastatingly profound.  It is the pure hearted Valentine who speaks first:

 'From the first moment I set eyes on you...' He interrupts, embolden by her honesty saying, ' And I ... from the first moment... I'll tell you ... if I looked out of a door ... it was all like sand ... But to the left a little bubbling up of water.  That could be trusted.  To keep on forever.'

 It is so typical that Christopher to declares his love through metaphor and simile and no one but Valentine can understand.  This is further proof that they are destined to be together.  How fitting that, in a Modernist text, where the whole reasoning behind the writing was to 'illumine the world within', that the secrets's of a heart should be communicated through imagery and visual means.  For Christopher, Valentine is the oasis in the desert, the only source of life, fertility and renewal in his desiccated world. The poetry of his language is the perfect mode of expression: not trite, but truthful.  The effect on the reader is all the more poignant as the words are uttered by a man in uniform, about to leave for the France, his beloved's talisman against harm tucked safely in his breast-pocket.
Of course this whole scene is so effective coming as it does after a sequence of fast-paced meanderings through Valentine's mind, as she races across London on foot, erroneously convinced that Christopher is the father of Mrs Macmaster's child, and that the rumours about him are true.  Her thoughts flood the page, as she hops from idea to idea.  The language is ceaseless, the ellipses reflecting her thought processes, as Madox Ford brings to light her inner life and the reader recognises in her how we too can think ourselves into a state.
By the time she meets Christopher face to face, she is only fit for crying, and we understand fully why this is so.  By now, Valentine has become a fully-rounded, living thing, no longer a mere fabrication on a page.

The book presents us with two specimens of womankind: Valentine, the virginal suffragette of high moral character, and Sylvia, the unfaithful wife, who disloyally, sends food parcels to her German friends despite, and because of, the war.  Life, for Sylvia, is one long party and so, perhaps, she represents the good life, the old life, of decadence, that ended with the horror of the trenches.  If she has her face turned to the past, Valentine's is facing the future.  She sees that change is coming,  and indeed hurries it along, with her demonstrations and embrace of the women's movement.  It is uncanny that Christopher, who prefers the world of the eighteen century to the England of 1914, should find himself falling hopelessly in love with a thoroughly modern girl.  Perhaps there is something deep in his unconscious mind that knows survival means embracing the future, and with it, hope.  He says earlier in the book:
'If you wanted something killed you'd go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it; emotion: hope: ideal: kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you'd go to Valentine...'.  It is clear that at the end of 'Some Do Not', Tietjens, despite being hurled back into the horror of the war, is opting for life.

The  'Some Do Not' of the title is referred to at least four times, once by an administrator in the War Office, who offers Tietjens a comfortable position at home.  He utters this phrase when Christopher declines: others may take the easy way out, but some do not.  Another time, it is spoken by the fly-driver, who conveys Valentine home after her horse is hurt in the fog near home.  He says: ' "But I wouldn't leave my little wooden 'ut, nor miss my breakfast, for no beast... Some do and some... do not".' Because the man has a taste for food in the morning, Valentine and Christopher's glorious time together on the hill is cut short.  How little decisions can make such a difference in the lives of others.
Then, being faced with the prospect of saying goodbye to Christopher, a tramp sees Valentine crossing the London streets, with tears streaming down her face and says to himself,  ' "Some do!" ...  then added: "Some do not!" '.  It seems that people from every level of society, have some comment to make about Valentine and Christopher.
Yet, the most informative reference to the title comes at the very end of the book, when fate once again prevents the couple from consummating their relationship.  Valentine offers herself to him saying she will be ready for anything that he might ask of her, but Tietjens says, 'But obviously... Not under this roof...' And he had added: 'We're the sort that... do not!' Suddenly they are a 'we', a self-declared couple, united in their mutual, moral understanding and feeling for one another.  The change is complete.  Overall, the title seems to suggest, the importance of the decisions that we make in life and while some are beyond our control, others, the really crucial ones, are not.

And now, I have torn myself away from the book too long and will begin 'No More Parades'.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Irish Catholic Imagination of Elly Griffiths

So I went on a book binge - an Elly Griffiths book binge -starting with 'The Crossing Places', and then, 'The Janus Stone', followed by 'The House at Sea's End' (again) and 'A Room Full of Bones'.

The books' main character is Ruth Galloway, a cat-loving, archaeologist-turned-crime-investigator, whose love affair with Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson is strangely compelling.  Yet, this blog post does not deal with Ruth's love life, or any one book in particular, but rather an idea that has been building in my mind ever since finishing the last book some weeks ago: how the texts are loaded with Catholic imagery and motifs.
The first book, 'The Crossing Places', almost begins with Ruth declaring that she prefers the Catholic version of heaven, with incense and candles.  From here on in, Catholic imagery floods the books.  Consider how so many of the cases involve young children, especially babies, mirroring the Madonna and Child imagery so central to Catholic iconography.   There are children, long dead, who are executed during ancient rituals, others who are abducted from home, and sadly another who is murdered, its skull hidden in a doorway.
In contrast to these dead children, are the living children of Nelson and Ruth.  Ruth will do anything to protect her daughter but she struggles with being a working mum, and the guilt that she suffers when she is away from her is a central theme.  This, however is nothing to the guilt felt by Nelson, who suffers doubly having betrayed his wife and all his daughters.  He is in a double-bind, and endures Catholic guilt whichever way he turns.  His troubles are magnified as divorce is not an option for Catholics.

Nelson's mother is an Irish Catholic, and he himself visits Father Hennessey in one book to receive confession for his 'sins'. 'Once a Catholic..' Grffith's writes.   It is Nelson who insists that Kate is baptised.  He struggles with his physical attraction to Ruth and struggles to repress it.  As a Catholic, he knows too well: if it feels this good, it must be wrong.

Nelson is not alone either; Sergeant Judy Johnson is Catholic too.  In fact, many of the characters are Catholic and Irish, much more than you would expect in a book set in Norfolk.  Ruth's best friends, Shona and Cathbad are Irish, as are Irish Ted, Max's parents, Sister Immaculata and Father Hennessey, meaning that there is a high percentage of Catholic characters in the series.
These characters seem at home with mysticism and strange happenings.  The ghost of Eric returns in book four, despite having died earlier in the series.  We witness Cathbad, a practising Druid complete with purple cloak, who seems to be blessed with second sight, entering the Dreamtime, participating in rituals and pagan ceremonies.  It is he who officiates over a baptism of baby Kate.  At one point even Nelson is hospitalised after being on the receiving end of an ancient curse.

I feel that the tendency of Griffith to fill her books with Irish characters, is because she wants to fill it with Catholic mysticism and superstition inspired by the ancient world of archaeology, which is at the core of the Ruth Galloway books.
   A new book, 'A Dying Fall', the fifth in the Ruth Galloway series, is due out in 2013.  Let's hope the 'dying' of the title refers to no one we know.   But I think we can be sure that there will be flavour of Irish Catholicism about it, I would be disappointed otherwise.

At Sea ~ Laurie Graham

Is this the new Agatha Christie without the body in the library?  No, it certainly is not. Yet, this book will keep you guessing and longing for high tea in the afternoon.
'At Sea', by Laurie Graham, is a novel about appearances, set on-board a cruise ship where people can easily adopt a new identity and live out their fantasies for a few weeks at least, before returning to normality on shore.
The story is narrated by the long-nosed, long-suffering Lady Enid Finch, who plays the neglected wife of Professor Bernard Finch, the ship's history lecturer (glorified guide) whose snobbery and egotism make him easily the most detested man on-board.  He is completely absorbed with his own image and status, sulking over his below-par accommodation and his having been denied a seat at the captain's dinner table.  In fact, he is so obsessed with appearing superior to all the other passengers, that it soon becomes clear that he is not who he claims to be.  When he is confronted by a fellow passenger and  boyhood friend, Enid soon realises that the man she married is not who he claimed to be, but is in fact Mr Willy Fink, a barely educated American from dubious parentage.  And what an appropriate name for the camelion-like Bernard, Fink sounding so much like fake.

But Bernard (or Willy) is not the only character who is not as they seem.  Lady Enid, we are told is actually not entitled to her title either, owing to second marriage and new heir.  To learn such untruths about our beloved narrator is quite unsettling and in keeping with the ever-shifting terrain of a stormy sea.  As the plot unfolds, more twists are revealed until we finally realise that nothing in this book is what it appears to be.  Interesting, it is only the loud Americans, so hated by Bernard for their being so 'American' in the first place, that are unchanging and steadfast.  They are what they appear to be.  Perhaps Graham is commenting on British society and how, like the effervescent Mrs Bucket, so much energy is spent in keeping up appearances, that life becomes nothing but boring show.  

Yet the theme of appearances goes still deeper in this text, infiltrating the very tone of the book.  For the first chapter or two I thought the book was set in the early part of the twentieth century and I kept expecting Miss Marple or Poirot to pop out from behind a cabin door.  How shocking then to hear a character refer to their mobile phone, or a reference to the year 2002!  Graham clearly sets out to make the book 'appear' to be set in pre-war Europe, but again is playing with our preconceptions, just like Bernard and Enid do.  In this way, the book harps back to an era long gone, when sea travel was a necessity, not a choice, which, in a way, all sea cruises do.

The book further reminds me of Agatha Christie because it contains a mystery, revolving around not the 'appearance', but the dis-appearance of an important character.  I cannot elaborate further for fear of spoiling the book, but the fact remains that the author has created a book which operates on may different levels.  Perhaps it is because of this interlacing of plot and style that I did not become very attached to any of the ship's passengers.  The all seemed a little shallow by the end and even Enid showed herself to be as unknowable as the rest.  Of course it is wonderfully enjoyable to see her abandon her grey wolly cardy for an electric blue dress, but she left me a little cold somehow.
Still, this is a very witty, enjoyable book that will keep you entertained to the end and rushing to read a little Agatha Christie and boil kettles, for some unknown reason.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The House at Sea's End: A Ruth Galloway Investigation ~by Elly Griffiths

There is something alluring about stories featuring old buildings and 'The House at Sea's End', by Elly Griffiths, is no exception. Here we have a house perched on the edge of a crumbling cliff on the north Norfolk coast, inhabited by three generations of the same family - a family with a secret.
This is the third book in the Ruth Galloway series, but I must confess that it is the first one I have read.  It was easy to jump straight in and begin mid-sequence, but having read this one, I know I will go back and read the others, because, in short, I liked this book.
Ruth, our protagonist, is a 39 year old archaeologist who sometimes takes times away from her usual job lecturing at the university to help the local police with murder investigations.  This book begins with the birth of Ruth's daughter Kate, whose father is D.C.I. Harry Nelson - the man whom she works alongside, when solving crimes, who also happens to be a married man.  
So, in this novel, Ruth, back from maternity leave, is called in to identify some bodies found under rocks when a cliff collapses.  The six naked men appear to have been executed, as their hands are bound together and they lie back to back.  All of this is very interesting, as it points to a British war crime from the Second World War, but what is even more compelling is the drama unfolding between Ruth and Nelson, as she struggles with being a mother and he struggles with not being a father to their daughter, Kate.
Ruth continually assures herself and us, that she is not in love with Nelson, but she isn't kidding anyone.  And after one night, when they are trapped together in a snow storm...well... but I will say no more... only, that Griffiths's novel is something like a mixture between Bridget Jones's Diary, Foyle's War and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries... so if such a cocktail seems tempting to you, then you should give this series a try.  I realise that all of the comparisons translated well to the silver screen, and so too would this novel, if it has not already done so. 
Interesting too, is how Griffiths has added an extra dimension to her novel: there is a lovely symmetry to the book, as the author considers the idea of how the eventual location of a missing body in war-time, be it during the Second World War, or the Bosnian Conflict, can mean all the difference to a grieving family.  By comparing elements of the two conflicts, the 1940 murders seem more recent and all the more relevant to modern readers.  The plot is not overly complicated but does include a higher than usual number of Irish characters, all of whom have a taste for the demon drink; something that is somewhat stereotypical in truth.  Still, the characters are interesting and entertaining, none more so than Ruth herself, which is why I recommend this book for a cosy read on a rainy summer's evening, when the house is quiet and you want to settle down to a not-too-taxing murder mystery, with friendly characters and a teasing love triangle to boot.  Just sit back and enjoy!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English ~ by Natasha Solomons

What is it about eccentric British people that is so appealing?  Well here we have a Jewish refugee from WWII, who has escaped Nazi Germany with his wife Sadie and daughter Elizabeth, who desperately wants to be accepted into English society.  Central to the story is the list that the refugees are given to enable them to assimilate into English society.  Finding the leaflet nigh on useless, Jacob amends the list, adding to it everything he notices about the English.

However, he still suffers from discrimination and is refused entry into a respectable golf club.   Undaunted, he decides to move to Dorset and build his own golf course, and in doing so becomes as eccentric as Bilbo Baggins himself! Here he and his wife come face to face with middle England and this is where the author, Natasha Solomons comes into her own.
Her descriptions of the villagers are akin to those of Thomas Hardy, as she creates endearing characters that jump off the page.  Equally, she creates beautiful glimpses of the English countryside, so that we can almost feel the scent of flowers in the air, and dappled light shining overhead.

More than anything though, I loved reading about Sadie Rosenblum, the forgotten wife, who expresses all her sadness and grief over the loved ones and way of life left behind in Germany, through the recipes that she makes from her mother's old cookbook.  The Baumtorte that she bakes, often the height of a small man, is something I will never forget.  It is a cake to remember and basically is like a pile of pancakes, each one sealed to the next with lemon icing.  When the village women eat the cake, they feel Sadie's sadness.  While her husband ploughs through the stones and scrub of the Dorset hills, making his golf course and changing the physical landscape, Sadie moves away the prejudices and small-mindedness of the people through the simple art of baking.
All night long she mixes and stirs her grief away.  She maintains her sanity too by dipping into her memory box containing a few trinkets and the only remaining photos of family members killed in the war.  She longs to look back to Before, just as her husband longs to move forward into the future.  She watches him change his name to Jack, wear tweed suits, buy a Jaguar sports car and feels that once again she is being left behind.  More than this I cannot say.  You need only rest assured that Solomons is a fine story teller who punctuates her tale with highs and lows at just the right places, making the plot bounce along pleasantly.

If you enjoyed 'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand', or 'The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society', then you will love this book.  It contains a wonderful blend of comfortable characters and tragic historical background.  Just like one of Sadie's memory cakes, all the flavours of this book are delicately balanced, so feel free to open it without fear of reading harrowing war details; it is not that kind of book.  Instead, it deals with the survivors of the War, mentioning only happy memories of a life in Berlin before it all went bad.
In essence the book is about finding a home in the strangest of places; how we humans, like the humble tortoise, carry our homes with us wherever we go.  We learn that place does not matter, but that the people in our lives are irreplaceable. What you can expect from this novel is to feel inspired by human kindness and happy to be alive: what more can you want in a novel?

Note:  This novel is published under two titles:  'Mr Rosenblum's list: Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman' and 'Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English', but it is the same book.  Whichever edition you fancy, I urge you to give this book a chance - your inner book-God will thank you!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

To be Sung Underwater ~ Tom McNeal

If it is a great summer read that you are looking for, then look no further than 'To be Sung Underwater', by Tom McNeal.  It tells the story of Judith Whitman, an unhappily married mother of one who suddenly does not feel that she belongs in her own house any more.  Her family has outgrown her, her husband is having an affair, her teenage daughter is embarrassed by her.  So, she sets up home in a storage facility and makes up a new identity for herself.
I suppose we can all relate to the desire to disappear for a while, to our own private sanctuary and in this way, the book reminded me, favourably, of Anne Tyler's 'Ladder of Years', with escape and the need to be visible being central themes.  Here Virginia Woolf's notion of a room of one's own takes on an urban, modern feel, as Judith literally recreates her teenage bedroom, complete with her old furniture and quilt, the very place where she lost her virginity some 28 years previous.
This of course gets her reminiscing about her first love, Willy Blunt, who thought her 'dangerous' when first they met.  In a series of erotic flashbacks we watch their story unfold, during a summer full of secret rendezvous in out of the way places.

The sexual awakening of Judith Whitman is beautifully dealt with and this is just one of the many reasons why I was so surprised to realise that this book was written by a man.  He really describes the world exactly as seen from a female point of view, be it Judith's tender affection and loyalty to her father or the abrasive, railing against her mother.  The child of separated parents, it is difficult for Judith to see the bad in her father, allowing in him the sexual freedom that she despises in her mother.  The irony is, of course, that Judith herself is no prude, although she expects her mother to be one.

As such, the novel is a close study of how mothers and daughters interact.  Firstly we see how Judith and her mother have incompatible lifestyles, the daughter being shocked and embarrassed by her mother's partying when her marriage breaks up.  However, when Judith begins the steep decent into her own mid-life crises, the parallels between her teenage self and her own daughter are all too evident.  The only permissible intimacy between them occurs when Judith dares to kiss her daughter's ear as she lies sleeping.  The sadness of this should devastate Judith, but she too has moved on.  So, McNeal has drawn a plot that comes full circle: as a daughter she pushed her mother away and as a mother she in turn is given the cold shoulder.

Yet, as the circle turns, Judith learns how it feels to become an outsider when her daughter and husband grow closer and begin to exclude her.  So, Judith ultimately becomes more like her mother, which is something that every adult can relate to, despite our protestations that that will never happen to us. Such echoing through the generations, is fascinating to read and makes this book an incredibly enjoyable read.

Yet the book also considers the relationship between daughters and their fathers.  It seems that Judith's relationship with her father only develops fully when her mother has been left behind and her parents separate.  In a scenario that would have pleased Freud greatly, she becomes the main woman in his life, or so she thinks.  She accepts his strange foibles and his sexually appetite for younger women, because he is her father - totally irreplaceable. Indeed, their relationship is the most important of her life and the flashbacks deal with her love for her father as much as her love for her old boyfriend.

He is an English professor and this enables McNeal to reference many classic novels and their characters, such as Elizabeth Bennett, from 'Pride and Prejudice' and Isabel Archer from 'Portrait of a Lady'.  This sometimes can be very off-putting in a novel, but not so here.  In capturing the adolescent mind, McNeal depicts Judith imagining herself as a character from a classic novel, which is very much in keeping with the pretensions of a teenage girl on the brink of  adulthood.  It added to the realism of the story and made me want to read more Henry James!

McNeal also writes incredibly witty dialogue, which would translate into a wonderful film script.  Everything Blunt says is clever and entertaining, which is one of the reasons why he is such a compelling and downright attractive character.  This, actually, is one of the flaws of the book - Willy's charm.  He is so charming in fact that is unfathomable as to why Judith could bring herself to abandon him and marry another man.  Foolish the girl who married Malcom, with his million, instead of William with broad smile and grey eyes!

So, considering all the references to Lizzy Bennet, it is possible that McNeal is considering what if Elizabeth Bennett regretted marrying Darcy after all.  Would she have wondered what if?  I think not - Wickham and Mr Collins have nothing in common with the charming Mr Blunt.  It applies better to Isabel Archer, a girl who receives multiple proposals and marries a vile, devil of a man in error.  Yet, in a modern society where numerous partners are now the norm, McNeal is tapping into our tendency to wonder 'what if' and to look nostalgically behind, at past lovers, when future relationships are too exhausting to contemplate.
This is a fine novel, erotic, fun and thought-provoking.  It will leave you digging out your old phone book and searching for old lovers on Facebook.  What you do if you find them is your look-out, but I recommend you read this book before picking up the phone and saying hello!

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Happy Birthday Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling!

Today, July 31st, is J.K. Rowling's birthday and that too of her beloved character, Harry Potter.  So I think it fitting that we raise our (figurative) glasses to the pair who have done so much to introduce the power and magic of reading to a whole generation of young people and adults too.  I recently consulted a group of some 60 young teenagers, most of whom, to my amazement, had not yet read the Harry Potter books, but had, they were keen to tell me, seen all the films.

It is shocking to think that there are Harry Potter fans in the world who have not experienced the trails and tribulations of the boy who lived first hand and then I am reminded of what life was like before Harry Potter, when reading was not seen as a worthy alternative to Playstations or Nintendo in the eyes of most young people.  Of course, now the internet is also in the mix and I wonder if the time has come to re-visit the Potter books and celebrate them once more for their imaginative setting, original characters and heart-stopping plot lines; to buy them for our friends and urge all and sundry to give them a try.

So take a little time today and pull out your favourite Harry Potter book, dip into it and re-live some of the all-time best moments in Children's literature.  It will be a few moments of your day well-spent.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Books for pre-teens by Iris

A Guest Blog:

Here are some books and series I have read that I would recommend to other pre-teens

Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan.  This series improves the readers knowledge of Greek mythology in a modern way. Brill!                ;

Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage.   This series is a good for kids who love fiction and adventure. Great read.                      

Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling.  I'm sure you have heard of it.  I'm a massive fan! Harry Potter ROCKS!!!         

Under The Hawthorn Tree, Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home by Marita Conlon -McKeana                      
A beautiful, heart-warming series. Please read!!
The Hobbit by J.R Tolkien. Very imaginative.Totally fantastic!                                        No comments:

The Problem with Shakespeare - Revisiting 'Othello'

What is Shakespeare's problem with women? In 'Romeo and Juliet', we watched Juliet thrust a dagger into her heart and die a needless death.  Then in 'Hamlet', the sweet Ophelia was driven into madness and drowned in the muddy depths, her garments, heavy with their drink.  In 'King Lear', faithful Cordelia was repaid for her filial affection by being hanged by the neck until dead.  There is so much pain and suffering heaped on the female lead in the Bard's great plays, that to play the heroine in a Shakespearean tragedy is a dangerous act indeed.

However, on re-reading 'Othello', for the first time in many years, it strikes me that poor Desdemona has the most violent, horrendous death of all.
Her husband is played on like a pipe and Iago whispers poison into the ear of his superior officer, Othello, telling him that his new bride is a harlot and has been to bed many times with their hitherto friend, Cassio.  So what does Othello do?  Does he approach his wife and accuse her openly?  For the sake of high drama, he does not.  Instead, his passion grows and he suffocates her in a fit of passion, not once, but twice!
A servant calls to him during the murderous act, perhaps distracting him, so she is not quite dead and speaks.  The horror is unbearable.  Othello, deciding to put her out of her misery, for he would not leave a dying animal in such pain, kills her again.  Yet, somehow, his powerful hands rebel against this unnatural act and Desdemona again speaks.  Once more she seems to survive the murder.
And what does she utter with her dying breath?  She says that her husband was not to blame for her murder, that it was her fault.  This, to me, is the most disturbing aspect of this very disturbing murder scene.  The idea that blame falls on the victim of the crime does not sit well with a modern audience.  At least  in 'Hamlet' Ophelia gets to vent her anger at her mistreatment by her beloved.  She runs mad and chides all men for their unruly ways.  Here Desdemona never gets that opportunity and when she does, she turns her eyes inward and chides herself for loving so a man that her father warned her against. Is this then the meaning of the play?  Is Shakespeare warning young women to listen to their fathers' bidding when it comes to marriage, or he is advising them not to marry into different cultures?  If this is so, then we can add xenophobia and misogyny both to Shakespeare's crimes.  
Indeed, the playwright deals with a similar theme in 'The Tempest', when Prospero tries to shield his daughter Miranda from falling in love, wishing instead to keep her protected and all to himself.  But such desires and unions are as natural as day turning into night and Shakespeare must have known the futility of such notions.
And so I wonder if the great poet and playwright was using the plays to live out some of his darkest wishes?  The virginal heroines, such as Juliet, Ophelia and Cordelia are blessed with quick, almost beautiful ends, but it is the lusty, 'spoilt' Desdemona who receives the most horrible of slow deaths, having the breath wrung out of her twice.  It is as if Shakespeare is punishing her doubly for her gender and sexual knowledge.  Indeed, in the play, Othello is punishing her for just that, for 'knowing' an other man, Cassio, when she should be his sole conquest.

In a world of sexual liberation such as ours, it is difficult to stomach such brutal repression.  If Desdemona had done all that Iago accused her of, should she have deserved to die?  Othello seems to think so, admitting openly that he killed her because she was a foul strumpet.  He is comfortable with his actions and believes that others will sanction them when they hear of her crimes.  Little does he think of his own guilt until it is too late.  The great irony, however, is that Othello tries to explain away his behaviour by pointing to a flaw in his character saying,

'Speak of me as I am...
Of one that lov'd not wisely but too well;'

 Here Othello concedes that it was his great passion for Desdemona that caused his violent outburst, yet he fails to realise that it was for this very trait that he executed his wife.  It seems allowable that he be passionate beyond reason, but that his wife be passionate too - that he cannot allow.

It is clear that we should not confuse Shakespeare's characters with the author himself, yet it is curious to note the recurrent themes and events, such as the murder of innocent women, which haunt his plays. While one cannot help but be awed by the author's vast body of work and the incredible levels of meaning and symbolism in his language, the maltreatment of his leading ladies clearly can be viewed as misogynistic.  Of course women in Elizabethan England and beyond were not given equal rights and freedoms, although Queen Elizabeth I governed her dominions with an authority stronger than many of her male descendants.  For women in Shakespearian England, burning at the stake was still common practice, as was branding.  Indeed, Elizabeth's own father showed a scant regard for the lives of his six wives, with beheading being the preferred method of ending unwanted marital ties.
So, perhaps Shakespeare cannot be wholly blamed that his works are marinated in the ideals and beliefs of the times in which he lived.  Still, it is a hard pill to swallow when so many fine female characters come to such violent ends.  I suppose it is that we are so enamoured with the genius of Shakespeare that to find fault with his plays is an anomaly and so maybe we can forgive him his own tragic flaw: the idealisation of women to the point that he must make saints and martyrs of them all.  Perhaps the reality of death by old age and all the decrepitude that that entails is too good for the likes of the fair Juliet, Ophelia and Desdemona?
Let us just ponder then the idea that for all the brutal putting-out of sweet female lives, Shakespeare has managed to highlight the horrendous crimes of mankind which sink no lower than the destruction of innocence and beauty, as demonstrated in the particularly brutal murder of the faithful, angelic, Desdemona.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Aran Islands ~ John Millington Synge

In 1898 John Millington Synge made the first of numerous trips to the Aran Islands in an attempt to record and archive the stories, poems and songs of the three western islands off the Galway coast.  The memoir he kept of this time makes up this 226 page book, replete with stories of the wonderful characters he met along the way and all their stories.
He captures a way of life that is long gone now and it is lucky for us that he took the time to make the often perilous journey to the islands because we now have this wonderful archive of material for posterity.   

What is most impressive is the love he clearly feels for the islanders, especially those on Inismeain.  He is in no way condescending or judgemental about their way of life which must have been so alien to him.  In fact, he longs to be part of the community and returns again and again to visit them.  By the end of the book, he is treated as almost family, having his own room ready for him on arrival and even entertaining the locals with his fiddle playing.  At last, he had a practical use on the island; to provide music and entertainment when musicians were scare.

The most poignant moment of all for me was when Synge recounted a story of a young man who had returned to the island from America, dressed in a fine suit of clothes.  His mother ran around the island telling everyone joyously that her son was home, until she learned the truth, that he was ill and had come home to die.  This story has extra meaning for us today, as we know that within a decade Synge too would be dead, at just 37 years old, having been diagnossed with cancer the year before his first trip to the island.  So maybe Synge was trying to find some answers about life and death on the islands, or perhaps he sought inspiration living with those who had so little in comparison to himself.

There is poetry in Synge's language, making this book a joy to read, yet he also views the island and its people with the eye of an artist.  Indeed, while Jack B. Yeats may have added some of his illustrations to accompany this book, they were copied from original photographs taken by Synge.  One of my favourite descriptons is when he describes the young women washing in the sea:
'round the edges of the sea, I often come on a girl with her petticoats ticked up round her, standing in a pool left by the tide and washing... their red bodices and white tapering legs make them as beautiful as tropical sea-birds...'

 I imagine he is thinking of flamingoes but the romatic imagery is somewhat spoilt when we learn of the many cases of rhuematism on the island caused by sea salt remaining on washed clothes, which kept them continually moist.   So this is much more than a travel book as it is sometimes described, written as it is by one of Ireland's foremost playwrights.  There is no denying that life on the Aran Islands was horrendously tough, for both men and women, but Synge writes no sob story here.  Instead, he focuses on the unique charm and vitality of the islanders and details their way of life as true, essential and in many ways superior to life on the Irish mainland.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

I Capture The Castle ~ by Dodie Smith

'I Capture The Castle', by Dodie Smith, is a wonderful book narrated by a seventeen year old girl living in an old, ruined castle, called Godsend, with her beautiful sister, younger brother, glamorous step-mother, author father and love-sick admirer.
It is set in rural England, in the county of Suffolk, in the mid-1930s, before war destroyed everything for a second time.  But the England described in this book seems more like that of an ealier time, owing to the elegant poverty the family find themselves in, the Midsummer rituals and the glorious castle moat!

Cassandra Mortmain, the narrator, begins the story sitting on the edge of a draining board, with her feet in the sink.  From the first instant we simply adore her.  She has her dog's blanket and a tea-cosy beneath her for comfort, delighting in the warm glow from the kitchen range.   This story is her journal, written in three different notebooks, each one more expensive than the rest, the first one being the cheap six penny copybook, and each increase corresponding to a rise in the family's good fortunes.  Indeed, the family's poverty is shocking, with basics like jam and eggs being celebrated as delicacies.  These young women are in dire straits and will do next to anything to better their circumstances, with Rose, the eldest sister, warning the others that she plans to walk the streets for money, although, Cassandra reminds her, there probably wouldn't be much business in that line in rural Suffolk!

And the whole idea of marrying for money becomes a central theme of the novel when, just like in Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice', two young gentlemen of means arrive in the neighbourhood.  Just before this happens, Cassandra actually says how she would love to live in a Jane Austen novel, but then declares that she would rather live in a Bronte one.  Which novel is preferable, an Austen one with a touch of Bronte, or a Bronte one with a touch of Austen, Cassandra wonders?  She finally decides that a mixture of both would be the ideal and this is exactly what we are given in this novel.

On the one hand we are presented with the Jane-Bingley, Elizabeth-Darcy conundrum, while at the same time, living in the castle is a young man who has been brought up almost as a family member, but who is actually like a servant to the family, being the orphaned son of the old house-keeper.  He loves Cassandra deeply, although she sees him too much like a brother to allow any physical intimacy - well at first anyway.  Doesn't this storyline sound familiar?  Yes, it mirrors that of Cathy and Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights'.  How delightful to have both of my favourite plots co-existing in the same text.  For this alone Smith's novel is worth reading.  And she carries it off beautifully.  It is the atmosphere of young, frantic, love, that links these two novels and that she captures so perfectly here.  

The whole novel is dripping in the newness of first love at seventeen; the dizzy heights of it, the utter anguish and the crushing conviction that life will never be the same again - good or bad - because of love.  If you have forgotten how being in love at seventeen feels, then Dodie Smith's book will provide welcome reminder.

Of course the name of our heroine is also a nod to Austen, Cassandra being the name of Jane's only sister and confidante.  That being so, then perhaps her sister represents the typical English beauty - the English Rose, who so enchants the young Americans.  Maybe then, the family surname, Mortmain, relates to the ruineous situation that the family find themselves in, mort being latin for dead. Or perhaps it refers to how paralysed their father is, suffering from chronic writer's block, the artist in him being dead to the world which forces his daughters to sell everything they own to survive.

 Perhaps it was with a smile that Smith named her American millionare family 'Cotton', which suggests comfort and freshness, while at the same time hinting at new money, perhaps gained from industry and American enterprise.  In this way, the British way of life is pitted against the American, like so many previous novels, such as 'The Shuttle', by Francis Hodgeson Burnett or 'Portait of a Lady' by Henry James.  It is interesting to note that Smith wrote the novel while she was homesick for England and living in California, which very much explains the romantic depiction of Suffolk and the celebration of modernity of America, with its new gadgets, its energy and vitality.  It is interesting to consider how the co-dependency of these neighbours would be mirrored in a few years time when Britain would rely on the United States for these very same attributes, in the Second World War.  So on one level, I think Smith is considering how these two great nations, although being very different and independent, each need and rely on the other, culturally, economically and even politically.

Dodie Smith's style of writing is enchantingly funny and very observant.  She captures funny moments that we can all relate to, much like a comedian can.  For example, she says of her sister's old dressing gown; 'She has been wearing it so long, I don't think she sees it anymore...if she were to put it away for a month and then look at it she would get a shock.' How true that is!  Being a first person narrative, the novel is full of such honest witty observations.  Funny situations too litter this book, like when Cassandra bathes in the bath tub recently used for dying clothes and ends up with green arms ; or when Rose is mistaken for a bear when she wears her great grandmothers old furs out in public and is chased by half the village.  In this way, the book reminds me of the Nancy Mitford novels, 'Love in a Cold Climate' and 'In The Pursuit of Love', having the same blend of elegant-poverty, high-romance, and light humour, and embarrassingly eccentric families.

One original thing that I found when reading this book is the insight I gained into the whole idea of marrying for money.  The girls are so desperate, they are without clothes, food and the barest of essentials, that they make the sensible decision to use whatever means possible to pull themselves out of poverty.  It seems very improbable, but by the time the Cotton boys come along, we too are egging the girls on and are happy for Rose to sacrifice herself to either of the men, even when one looks like the devil with his little goatie.  I think this novel is more Jane Austen that Jane Austen novel!  Indeed, in 'Pride and Prejudice,' only a minor character, Charlotte Lucas, marries for money. Neither Lizzy nor Jane suffer that fate, although Elizabeth suffers a near miss with Mr Collins.

In this book, Dodie Smith goes so far as to demonstrate the awful poverty that untrained, women of a certain class experienced because they are not fit for employment, only for matrimony, and as such they were in some ways worse off than women in the lower classes, as they could not even earn a living.  This is the serious theme of the novel, but one that, luckily, works itself out in the end.

I cannot finish without mentioning the many animals that appear in the book.  Heloise is Cassandra's beloved white pitbull terrier, who follows and protects her wherever she goes.  Smith's love of animals is evident from how she depicts them as almost human in their expressions and behaviour.  It is easy to imagine how she went on to write the hugely successful children's story, '101 Dalmatians', later so famously animated by Disney, for which she is most widely remembered today.  However, there is much more to Dodie Smith than that, so do yourself a favour and read this delightfully, funny book, and wallow in every page, sitting on the edge of a draining board, feet soaking in the sink or not!

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Wired Love - A romance of dots and dashes ~ by Ella Cheever Thayer

'Wired Love- A Romance of Dots and Dashes', by Ella Cheever Thayer  (1849-1925),  is an enchanting book about a love affair between two telegraphers in America, code names 'N' and 'C'.  The couple fall victim to the dangers that internet chat-room users are faced with today: they begin to fall for the stranger on the other end of the line without knowing what they look like, who they are, or anything much about them.  For the first few chapters, 'N', known as Nattie, has no idea if the grapher on the end of the line is a man or a woman.  She leads a double life - her 'online' life and her humdrum normal life.  She has her real, 'visible' friends, and this increasingly special  'invisible' friend.  More and more the 'invisible' variety takes precedence.  How many of us can relate to that?  The amazing thing is that the story was written in 1879.  

It is clear that Cheever Thayer is a huge Dickens fan; her characters are cartoon-like in their depiction and comic too.  Like the Pocket family in 'Great Expectations', who are continuously described as tumbling and falling, so too is the love-sick Quimby, as he tumbles and falls, over logs, cushions, fire buckets etc. He is something akin to Stan Laurel and you cannot help but warm to him and respect his good taste as he is so enamoured with our witty heroine.  The novelist actually refers to two Dickens novels during the story as a nod of respect the great English writer who had died just nine years before this book was written.

The humour in this novel is touching and farcical at times, in the way of P.G. Woodhouse, and I found this to be one of the most charming aspects of the book.  Charming is the perfect word for it as you fall in love with the characters and delight in the myriad of misunderstanding that makes this novel so highly cinematic.

Indeed, it would make a wonderful play and an even better movie.  As such it would have been a perfect role for a young Jimmy Stewart and reminds me greatly of 'The Shop Around the Corner', which was recently re-made and updated as 'You Got Mail', starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.  If you like either of those films, then you will love this book.  It is full of witty, sparkling dialogue, plenty of puns and word play, especially when they chat on 'the wire', and could easily be adapted into a modern tale about find love on the World Wide Web.

It is so interesting to note the freedom that these Victorian Americans, and women especially, were allowed.  It seems a million miles away from the sheltered, chaperoned existence of the Brontes and George Elliot.  It is no surprise to learn then, that Cheever Thayer was a suffragette and wrote plays on the subject.  Here is a section from the book that I found very interesting, given the early date of its origin, and how pertinent the words are even in today's world:

'... She had growled at herself all the way because she was not smart enough to get on in the world, even so far as to be to stay at home in such weather.  For storms of nature, like storms of life, are hardest to a woman, trammelled as she is in the one by long skirts, that will drag you in the mud, and clothes that every gust of wind catches, and in the other by prejudices and impediments of every kind, that the world, in consideration, doubtless, for her so-called "weakness", throws in her way'.

Such words of frustration echo Bronte's novel written some thirty years previously, but would not have been out of place if there were said by Jane Eyre herself!  So while the book has a light, romantic tone, there is substance there all the same and you do not need to dig very deep to find it.

But what is most memorable about this book is the voice of the author; this vibrant, clever, witty woman, who had worked in a telegraph office herself, and had spoken in morse code on the wires, and, perhaps, had experienced some of the funny situations that she describes so deftly in the book.

A regular reader will finish this short book in a day, and what a pleasant, romance-filled day of smiles that will be!

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