Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Twin ~ Gerbrand Bakker

The great enigma of this book is the twin of the title.  We never get to meet Henk in any real sense: he dies before the story begins and what we learn about him is all second hand and unashamedly  biased.  For Helmer, the book's narrator, he was his other half - his twin brother with whom he shared everything: his thoughts and fears; his violent father; his warm childhood bed and his home in rural Holland.  A fatal car crash ripes the twins apart and the book depicts a family in mourning following the death of a loved-one.  It begins some twenty years after Henrk's death, but Helmer and his father are in a world where time stands still; each one aching for the missing person in their lives and mad as hell about it.
The father, old Mr Van Wonderan, is an elderly farmer and relies on his remainling son, Helmer, to see to his every need.  But that is just it, Helmer does not see to his needs, but instead in a horrible power-play, he delights in neglecting his aged parent at every possible opportunity.  When Mr Van Wonderan says he is thirsty, Helmer says that he gets thirsty too, and leaves his father longing for a drink for hours.  This is how Helmer repays his father for ill-treating  him as a boy and for forcing him to give-up his dreams of a different life.  Helmer longs to travel and to explore, but he is weighed-down by responsibilities of the farm and by his anger and grief at the loss of his twin brother.
It is only when a strange young boy, also called Helmer, comes to stay on the farm, that things begin to change.  Suddenly Helmer is brought face to face with someone who needs him; someone who forces Helmer to realise that life is not to be wasted; that he loved his brother, lost that love, but must move on. The change is presipitated by a near death experience after an accident on the farm and when Helmer is given the kiss of life by young Henk.  With this 'kiss', he is 'reborn' and begins to slowly come back to life.

 It is also young Henk who asks him. 'what was it like to have a twin?'  This is a turning point for Helmer, who has never spoken of his deep feelings for his brother to anyone. He breaks down in tears saying: 'It's the most beautiful thing in the world...When we touched each other we touched ourselves.  Feeling someone else's heartbeat and feeling it's your own, you can't get any closer than that.'

While this book deals specifically about being a twin, it also deals with the feelings of loneliness that we all feel, as we move through life, loose loved-ones and try to find our own place in the world.  And while all this sounds very depressing, it is true to say that there is much that is compelling and life-affirming about this beautiful book.

There is a quietness about it that is perfectly in keeping with the landscape of Holland.  The dykes, low-lying ground and windmills are wonderfully described; the simplistic language of the text perfectly suiting the sparse physical landscape.  This is an introspective novel, where the narrator bears his soul to the world.  This creates a very personal tale, yet it is a universal one too.  It deals with every emotion associated with sudden death; loss rejection, abandonment and the anger of being left behind.

Yet, on one level, the twin of the title is a metaphor for the 'other' that we all search for in life, the thing that will fulfill us and make us feel complete.  And this is ultimately what 'The Twin' is about: becoming whole.  At different stages in the book various people become the twin for Helmer.  At one point it is his mother; his ally when he tries to go to college; then it is Jaap, the farmhand-friend, who teaches him how to swim and makes him feel whole again.  At one point, young Helmer also becomes a surrogate twin, bringing him the physical closeness that he missed so much when his brother died.  Each character, to varying degrees enables Helmer to face up to his fears and helps him to find happiness in being alone. The irony is, of course, that when he was surround by his family and friends, he felt most lonely, but as they all left and he was actually on his own, specifically at the very end of the book, he did not feel lonely any more: 'I stay sitting calmly.  I am alone'.  Of course, Helmer is not actually alone.  He is surrounded by people who care about him, but it is only when he lets go of his grief, that he can let love in.

I urge you to read this book.  It is a simple story, told as much through imagery as anything else, and so reminds me in many ways of a thought-provoking poem.  In a book where death can come in the form of an humble egg ( a thing usually associated with the beginning of life) and where omens are foretold by the presence of a black hooded-crow, you cannot help but be enthralled.  This novel may be about twins, but you will have to go a long way to find another one like it, believe me.  Now go read it!

Friday, 23 March 2012

Bunnies At Bedtime

Children's fiction has long been fascinated  with the soft, adorable, long-eared, mammal: the  bunny-rabbit. In 1893 Beatrix Potter wrote the colourful 'Tale of Peter Rabbit', about the mischievous little bunny who was apt to get into trouble and was made to pay dearly for his escapades.  Although Peter winds up safely back home with his mother after his adventures, he is made to suffer horrible anxieties as he hides from the menacing farmer, who is tracking him down.   As it says, poor Peter was 'out of breath and trembling with fright'.  Poor Peter comes within a hair's breadth of the cooking pot.  It seems that Victorian children were made of sterner stuff than the modern day variety.  It would take a braver mother than I to read such a tale to a toddler at bedtime, so perhaps the Victorian mothers were of a different kind too!

Of course, the twentieth century also had its own celebrated rabbit, but this time he was a toy bunny, although he did not end up that way.  'The Velveteen Rabbit - or How Toys Become Real', by Margery Williams, was published in 1922, and tells of the toy rabbit who longs to be a real rabbit.  This bitter-sweet tale rends the heart in two, as the toy rabbit is stolen from the nameless, generic 'Boy' who is suffering from a fever.  This toy rabbit was capable of thinking and feeling, and misses the Boy dreadfully.  But worse still, he is meant for the fire, to be burnt, like all the other germ-ridden objects from the nursery.  What an horrific tale for a young child to hear!  It seems in 1922, between the two World Wars, children and their parents could face such tragedy before bedtime, and still manage to settle down to sleep.  As the title suggests, this book details the metamorphoses of a toy, who transforms from play-thing to real life creature, the very thing that every child, since time immemorial, has always wanted.

The present century has not been without its fair share of rabbit stories either, but one that I particularly love is the 2006 children's book: 'That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown', by Cression Cowell.  Here the child is as much part of the story as the rabbit, for it is the little girl, Emily, who has the power to bring Stanley, her old, stuffed, pink rabbit, to life.  Just like in 'The Velveteen Rabbit', the toy is stolen, this time by a naughty, spoilt queen, and it is Emily who comes to the rescue.  She gives some honest advice to the queen telling her to 'play with (her new teddy-bear) all day.  Sleep with him at night.  Hold him very tight and be sure to have lots of adventures.  Then maybe one day you will wake up with a real toy of your OWN'.

Here we see the child declaring what it takes to bring a toy to life; love and a little imagination.  It is no longer the sole preserve of the author, as with Peter Rabbit, or some magic fairy, as with the Velveteen Rabbit; to bring a toy to life.  It is made possible by empowered children everywhere believing in themselves and their ability to imagine.  Now doesn't that sound like a very twenty-first century way of doing things?

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

One Book is Never Enough ~ The true confessions of a bookaholic!

Never one to deny that I am a fool for a good book cover, I freely admit that I was seduced into buying yet further copies of my three, all time favourite books, simply because I could not resist the lavish, cloth binding.  The good people at Penguin certainly know how to market their products. I must have at least seven copies of 'Pride and Prejudice' already - one from when I studied it in school, another from college; one from my mother's set of classic novels, one from a miniature set of Austen's works, one that I use for teaching, a vintage one from the 1930s and one that is actually a dramatisation and may not strictly count.  I am sure there are others, but you get my drift: I cannot stop buying this book, especially if the cover is to die for.

Then we come to the dilemma - how can I buy this new, beautiful, Penguin clothbound edition, without buying 'Wuthering Heights' to compliment it?  It would be sacrilege, like snubbing Emily Bronte?   And what is any proper Bronte collection without Charlotte's 'Jane Eyre'?  You see my difficulty.  And hey presto, you find yourself smuggling books into the house, and you suddenly have half a shelf-full of new books and you hope that your husband doesn't notice.
But, oh aren't they lovely??  Of course, Father's Day must be coming soon, and isn't Dickens's 'Great Expectations' a favourite of my husband's and it is only fair, after all, that he get to have his books on the bookshelf too... Perhaps I need to order some more books for the collection, but this time by male authors... in the interest of gender balance of course.  And suddenly I understand just how all the enormous libraries across the globe have come into being.  For it is a truth, universally acknowledged... that one book is never enough!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Pretty Perfect : The Fault in Our Stars ~ by John Green

I was brought to 'The Fault in Our Stars' by John Green, kicking and screaming basically, but as it was chosen for my Young Adult Book Club March read, I felt I couldn't put it off for much longer.  I was expecting the heartbreak and the tears, this is after all a book about a sixteen year old girl who is living with cancer, but no one told me how funny this book would be.  Indeed one of the book's characters categorically states that there are different ways to tell a sad story, but he chooses to tell it in a funny way.  I suspect this is the voice of author John Green coming through the text, reminding us that in spite of, and on some occasions because of, all the sadness in the world, there is always room for humour.
The male characters especially, namely Isaac and Augustus, are so witty and charming that you cannot help but smile. And here is the genius of this book.  The characters are so wonderfully drawn, that you can tell that author Green has spent a lot of time around young cancer patients.  Apparently he was a chaplain on a cancer ward just after he graduated college.  He captures the vernacular and natural cadence of teenage speak, so perfectly, that it is difficult to imagine that these characters are indeed fictitious.  The reader is placed inside the head of this teenage narrator and we are convinced that she is real.  The first person narrative makes the language so immediate and personal, that we are hooked into the story from the word go and are rooting for Hazel to beat the cancer statistics and survive, because, as she says herself, 'Cancer sucks.'
In a most unexpected way, this novel is an uplifting, life-affirming tale, not bad considering it is a story about death.  But here I exaggerate; this book would not be half so interesting if it were that simple. It is ultimately a love story, a great love story that celebrates the ability of humans to create a private universe wherever they are, when they are in love; be they hiding in Holland from the Nazis, like Anne Frank, or hanging out in Indianapolis.  It deals with teenagers in love for the first time, learning to love one another and letting themselves be loved in return.
But there is also the story of a familial love and it is so refreshing to read about teenagers who actually love their parents and have healthy relationships with them.  There are some very poignant scenes betweens the teenagers and their families as they navigate the rough waters that surround the world of the cancer patient, or Cancervania, as Hazel calls it.
What is so striking is how normal these kids are.  They want to rebel, to make out, to fake-smoke real cigarettes, to drive a car... they are living with a disease that is part of who they are, but it does not define them.  And this is the beauty of this book: it reminds us how precious life is, how vital every breath we take is, and not in any corny kind of way.  I don't believe I will ever think of a cancer patient, or their family, in the same way again and what better testament do you need from a book?  This is a great book for anyone to read, but I especially think that teenagers will adore it.  I suspect the young adults in my reading group will, well they selected it didn't they and after all, who can resist a great love story.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

'The Troubled Man' ~ Henning Mankell

I suppose beginning with the final novel in a book series is not usually recommended, but as this was a book club choice, I really had no option. I had seen the Swedish television adaptation, of Henning Mankell's 'Wallander', which I really enjoyed, so I thought that I could just hop in.  I think my sheer optimism was my first mistake!
The brutal truth is that I didn't really enjoy reading this book, although I can see much to appreciate here.  We have a brooding, melancholic central character in a stark and bleak Swedish landscape.  He deals with the flotsam and jetsam of society, the criminals, the broken, the lost, and each case effects him in a different way.  Although the story is told in the third person, the reader feels like we are inside Wallander's head as he ponders life and death, and re-lives old cases and old love affairs.

In reality, most of the time, he wanders from place to place beating himself up about his broken marriage and his fractious relationship with his daughter.  In this novel, Wallander becomes a grandfather, and so he has another family member to worry and fret about. This ensures that the better-sweet memories he has of being a father is a central theme of this text.
As detective thrillers go, I don't think that Wallander did much detecting; mostly helpful clues in the guise of letters and witnesses turned up out of the blue while other police-officers handed him all the more vital pieces of information.  As for 'thrilling', well I found the book left me more depressed than thrilled, dealing, as it does, with death, old age and saying goodbye to one's youth.  Of course, Wallander's granddaughter does bring new life to the story, but it can hardly outweigh the sheer tonnage of gloom in this book.
One cannot ignore Mankell's highly visual writing style, albeit stark and sparse for the most part. I leave the book feeling as though I have holidayed in Sweden and have enjoyed the odd vodka and glass of wine there myself. Indeed, Wallander spends so much of the novel eating and drinking, that even I was fearful for his ever increasing blood sugar levels.
So, I do not think I will be dashing out to purchase my next Wallander novel, but I can understand why others might want to.  I will be satisfied to join him again on television re-runs, where the faster pace seems to suit this slow-moving detective all the more, in my opinion.
2 of 5 stars

'When All the Others Were Away at Mass', by Seamus Heaney

It is Mothering Sunday and a time for us to reflect on those who have cared and nurtured us through childhood and beyond.  My thoughts on this subject are best captured by Seamus Heaney in his wonderful poem, 'Clearances III' dedicated to his mother, Mary Heaney, who died in 1984.  Here the poet considers the moment when he was left alone in the house with his hard-working mother, preparing the Sunday lunch 'while the others were all away at mass.'  He says, 'I was all hers', but we can tell that what he really means is, that she was all his.  In the silence, their knives dip in and out of the water, the two doing a sort of dance together.  In this small, everyday activity, the boy and the mother come together and share a mutual love.  This is the time that Heaney remembers when he thinks of his now deceased mother, the silent moment that he felt closest to her:
'Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives--
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.'
Heaney gives us such little detail, he leaves so much unsaid, but that is the beauty of the poem: the silences.   Everything you need to know about their relationship is there in these few lines:  she is the provider of food, the giver of life, he the adoring son, coming to aid her.  We wonder why they did not have to get mass.  Had she already been, having gone at the crack of dawn, or was she or he at home sick?  Had she been nursing him back to health?  This might be why, later in the poem as his mother is dying, with some sickness of her own, that he returns to this memory.  While the priest beats out the prayers of the dying, it is the silence of that lost moment that he most recalls, that active, vital mother that he most yearns for.
I love that it is that most Irish of vegetables, the humble potato, that binds this silent Irish boy and his mother so closely together; the 'potato' and the 'water' being so symbolic of domestic Irish life.
So, for those of us who have sons and who know too well the beauty of those quiet moments and the simple joy of doing things together, Heaney's words echo like a truth always known.  So, for all those women everywhere, mothers (sisters, daughters, carers, nurses) who keep the world in hot dinners, clean linen, warm hugs, long conversations, bright smiles, empathetic tears, and future generations... this poem is for you.  Happy Mother's Day!

Clearances III  
Taken from 'In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984' by Seamus Heaney.
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives--
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Seamus Heaney and Saint Patrick

It's Saint Patrick's Day, a time for nostalgia; when the Irish everywhere dream of home and ache for the Ireland of the past, when things seemed simpler, when we were simpler and when the home fire and those around it were enough to sustain us through the cold, damp Irish days.  And so I come to Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, famed chronicler of Irish memory, to celebrate his most recent collection of poems, 'Human Chain'.

I bought my copy at the book's launch in Dublin, where Heaney delighted us all and moved more than one to tears, with his new verse and stories of how life had changed for him since suffering a stroke.  Somewhat smaller that I remembered him, he kept us captivated by the quiet lilting of his unmistakeable voice.  And what we few heard, who were gathered there in the half-light, was a wisdom, no less vital than the words of a saint or prophet, and as nourishing and soothing as that of a shaman.
The title of this latest collection comes from a poem that celebrates the things that connect people around the world, through our humanity, through the small things and, in this case, the lifting of a bag of grain.  It begins with the image of an aid worker passing out bags of meal  to a hungry mob, while soldiers shoot overhead and then, as in typical Heaney fashion, we are transported back to the Ireland of Heaney's youth, as he recalls the rhythmic swaying motion of lifting and swinging bags of grain onto a lorry.  Yet it is the letting go of the sack, 'that quick unburdening' that he dwells on saying, 'A letting go which will not come again.  Or it will, once.  And for all'.  The specific positioning of the punctuation in these last few lines of the poem dictates the meaning.  Heaney is not only considering his own death, but is reminding us, that, like Everyman, death comes to us all. r.

Another favourite poem of mine from this collection is 'The Butts', primarily because it reminds me so much of my late father.  It tells the story of a young Heaney, pressed up beside the cloth of his father's suit, not in a tender hug, for such a thing was not usual for Irish men of Heaney's father's generation, but as he leans into his father's wardrobe to search for cigarette butts to steal.  He is reminded of the stolen moments in the wardrobe as he cares for his elderly father, bathing and tending him, ' To lift and sponge him... closer than anybody liked...'  The simplicity and immediacy of the language is classic Heaney.  He takes us into the scene, the master story-teller that he is, and we imagine that we are listening to a friend recount the thoughts of the day.  Once again, Heaney is gently forcing us to consider the relationships between parents and children, reminding us that if we all leave home for distant shores, who will look after our old and sick?  It is a dilemma which is the source of much heart ache for those who emigration leaves behind and for those whom it steals away.

And then, Heaney celebrates place, his childhood  home, in Mossbawn. 'In Derry Derry Down', he creates the most beautiful and simplistic image of a world where beauty can be seen in an old bucket full of soaking, ripening fruit:
'The lush
Sunset blush
On a big ripe
Heaney reminds us of the joy of the everyday, in the simple things.  An it is this celebration of the small things that gives Heaney his power and relevance for Irish people today.  He is the bard in the corner, softly calling to the people of the house to listen to his words and reflect on what it is to be Irish, to remember a world where things were simpler and to remain true to their Irishness.
So if St Patrick saved Ireland from the snakes and the 'heathens', maybe we can say that Seamus Heaney is in a similar position; perhaps he brings the antidote to all the noise and chaos of modern living, that is distracting us from what is really important in life; our families, our home place; our Irish identities.
 Happy St.Patrick's Day.


Friday, 16 March 2012

A tale of Lost and Found - 'Wuthering Heights' and 'Jane Eyre'

This is the story of two books.  One was given to me as a present on my birthday some years ago.  I was thrilled beyond words when I opened the plain paper package to find a copy of 'Jane Eyre', by Charlotte Bronte, dated 1933. On the cover it had a picture of a golden Pegasus flying amongst the stars and I loved it immediately.  'Jane Eyre' is one of my all time favourite books and I couldn't have been happier.  I was told it came from an old book shop in Dublin and it took pride of place on my college book shelf.

Some years later, while visiting Haworth in Yorkshire, the picturesque village where the Bronte family lived and wrote, I took a walk along the cobbled main street and went browsing at a secluded book shop while sheltering from the rain.  Just as I was about to leave, a golden Pegasus caught my eye and it reminded me of something.  It was on the binding of a copy of 'Wuthering Heights', by Emily Bronte.  I quickly exchanged money for this treasure and buried my find at the bottom of my bag to protect it from the rain.  It wasn't until a few days later, when I had returned to Ireland and I was placing the book upon my bookshelf that I noticed the similarity... my old Dublin copy of 'Jane Eyre' and this new Yorkshire copy of 'Wuthering Heights' were a matching pair!  Both were published in 1933, by Daily Express Publications London, both with a flying golden Pegasus on the front.   It took some seventy years, but I like to think that these tomes were reunited at last, not unlike the heroes and heroines of the books themselves, on my bookshelf, never to be parted again.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

One Romantic Deserves Another ~Shelley's Complete Poetical Works ~

Continuing my look at the most prized books on my shelf , I come to my cherished copy of Percy Shelley's Complete Poetical Works, edited by Thomas Hutchinson.  It is a leather-bound hardback copy, published in 1925, by  Oxford University Pressinlaid and edged with gold.  It was a very special birthday present from a boyfriend many years ago and I thought it the most beautiful book I had ever beheld, or held for that matter, being, as it is, such a sensual book to hold it.  The cold leather, the faint musky smell and the beautiful green, red and gold of the inlaid floral design on the cover, makes this a very special book indeed, and very much in keeping with the deeply sensuous, highly evocative matter within.

Of course, it is a book of poetry, written by one of the greatest Romantic poets of all, so to explore the world of verse that it contains is to travel to far and distant lands at the hands of a master.  Interestingly, the book itself has done its own fair share of travelling, passing from owner to owner for almost one hundred years. The original owner was someone called Shelia, for the book has a sweet inscription on the inside cover, dated Christmas 1929: 'To my dear Maureen from her pal Sheila'.  It is so poignant that this book, so beautiful in appearance and decorated with ornate flowers should be passed from one woman to another as a testament to their friendship and should come to be in my keeping some eighty years later.

And while I do think of this book as mine, I never open it without thinking of Sheila and  Maureen, who must have loved and cherished this book just as much as I do. I think about the life the women must have had, living as they did between the Great Wars, at a time when the Irish Republic was still very new and Ireland itself had just gone through a brutal and divisive War of Independence.  For I am certain, owing to the nature of their names, and the phrasing of the inscription, that these were Irish women.  The book's presentation is of such high quality, as is the specialised nature of the subject matter, that I believe the women to have been of the middle classes, who discovered, over afternoon tea, that they shared a love of poetry.
One only wonders where the book was between 1925, when it was published and 1929, when it was given as a Christmas gift: forgotten on some dusty shelf, or wrapped in a box, awaiting a sale.  I have a feeling that the book first belonged to Sheila and was passed on to Maureen, who proclaimed to her friend how much she admired the poet.  Perhaps Sheila did not care for Shelley, or it was a love token from a lost love or husband she no longer cared for.  Or maybe it was Maureen and Sheila who were lovers, and 'pal' is some secret code for their amour which, at the time, could not be spoken of openly.  The romantic nature of the verse would seem to support this, or perhaps I have been reading too many Sherlock Holmes stories.

Either way, I cannot help but wonder what became of these women and their friendship and how this volume came to sit on a shelf in a Dublin second hand book shop at the end of the last century.  The happy and sad thing is, that I will never know, and this is what I like most of all: the mystery of the book remains.  Perhaps every book should come with a log book of owners, like cars do, so that we may know the story of the story-book and love it all the more for that.  Sometimes, it is not just the story within the book that is interesting, but also the story of the book itself.  And as for the old boyfriend who was good enough to send this book my way, well, 'Reader, I married him!'

P.s.  An ageing ribbon bookmarks a page still, as it did when it first came into my possession and I like to imagine that it was Maureen, or Sheila, who left this page marked for their friend's attention and now for mine.  In the spirit of sisterly friendship, I think it says something to all women about empowerment and the truth that hopefully comes to us all in the end, that power lies within us.

                              From Hymn of Apollo
                                 by Percy Bysshe Shelley. 1792–1822

.... All men who do or even imagine ill
Fly me, and from the glory of my ray
Good minds and open actions take new might,
Until diminished by the reign of Night....

And the pure stars in their eternal bowers,
Are cinctured with my power as with a robe;
Whatever lamps on Earth or Heaven may shine,
Are portions of one power, which is mine.

Friday, 9 March 2012

The love letter - the dinosaur of the written word?

We can learn so much about social history by studying the letters of the past.  Historians the world over love to spend hours pouring over them for any clues about the individual habits and customs of their creators.  Yet a letter can reveal the contents of one's heart just as easily as the contents of one's diary.
One of my all time favourite books, is 'Love Letters - an Anthology of Passion', by Michelle Lovric. And what a treat this book is.  It's a lavishly produced epistolary hardback, complete with luxurious illustrations and covered in red and gold lettering.  Inside the reader is presented with printed love letters from scholars and writers down the ages, featuring the likes of Dylan Thomas, Robert Browning and John Keats.
But the really wonderful thing about this book is the way that the publishers have included the actual letters, written in the hand of the original writers, folding out on the page or tucked in tiny envelopes as they originally were.  How delicious to hold Keats's letter to Fanny Brawne in your hand, an exact replica.  Here is where reading becomes a truly sensual experience and, for some reason, the words are all the more poignant for that.  Each page also features small extracts from the letters of other notorieties, as diverse as Ringo Starr and Abraham Lincoln.
There is something so personal about a letter; they contain interesting facts and witty observations and intense bursts of sentiment.  Even if the author has long since departed this world, a letter can bring them before us one more time with a freshness and an immediacy that is startling in its intensity and not to be found anywhere else.
And now, with the advent of the internet, it seems that the letter is becoming the dinosaur of the written form and should be all the more cherished for that. Does anyone take the time to woo their loved ones in such a way any more?  A text, email, or dare I say a tweet, certainly cannot compare to a well crafted letter that reveals the full depth of feeling over several pages.  How many ways are there to say those three little words?  Could you exchange them for something altogether more poetic and sensual?  Surely they have been said already, and possibly by a professional word-smith who can do a much better job than you or I.

And herein lies the crux of the matter: it is the craft of writing love letters that has all but disappeared, and not the appeal of the letters themselves.  They take too long to write perhaps, and the whole rigmarole of selecting the right paper, pen and envelope, never mind the correct stamp, just turns people off.    But when so much pleasure can be produced, at really so little cost, surely it is time to excavate this old dinosaur and bring back the original social medium of the heart.

And if you needed any further proof as to the power of this now out-dated medium, let me finish by quoting just one touching letter, from this delightful collection, written by William Pitt, First Lord Chatham to his future wife, Lady Lady Hester Grenville, October 3rd, 1754:
'The tender warmth of your feeling, loving, heart has almost sweetly robbed me of the only superiority I gave myself; that of loving you more than you could love.  If you dispute this superiority, I can, I believe, forgive you.'

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Secret Allure of The Secret Garden

At this time of year I love to dip into some of my favourite illustrated children's books and put them on display on my book shelf.  Nothing lifts the spirit better than Inga Moore's illustrated version of 'The Secret Garden', by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Just to see it resting there seems to blow the cobwebs of winter away and reminds me that soon the warmth of summer will be here.
This timeless classic celebrates the joy of watching the earth come to life in springtime.  As each tender green shoot gently pushes up out of the soil, the main character, the cold and distant Mary Lennox, comes to life and learns to love.  Orphaned in India by her British parents, Mary has been sent home to Misselthwaite Manor in the wilds of Yorkshire, to live with her mysterious uncle Mr Craven.  He too is still mourning the loss of his beautiful young wife and spends little time in the big, old house.  It is here that Mary discovers the secret, overgrown garden and a secret, under-grown, cousin, Colin Craven, whose weak, twisted body is the visual manifestation of his father's neglect.
The novel is full of wonderful characters, such as the trusty Dickon, and the relentless Mrs Medlock, who all, in their way, succeed in helping the children come to terms with the loss of their parents.  Indeed, there is much sadness in the book, with death hanging like a shadow in the background, but ultimately, there is hope and joy.  The garden, with its vibrant potential for endless possibility delights and charms the children.
 Here they create their private universe, where grown-ups never venture and they can rule the world.  The garden, with its seasonal, never changing patterns adds structure to the lives of these children who have been so spoilt in the past by neglectful parents and compliant servants.  
The garden too allows them to remember who they are in the scheme of things: that they are young, and should be allowed to behave as such; to run, laugh and play without guilt or fear of being chided.  It is from the garden that the children gain the strength to cast off the chains of sickness and death, to move forward and embrace life.
Spring is ringing out from every branch on every page of this book.  And this beautiful, hardback, illustrated edition brings the soft, red, glow of the tiny robin, and the dizzying yellow haze of blooming daffodils, to life before our eyes in the way that only a children's' book can.  So, forget chocolate this Easter: order Inga Moore's illustrated version of 'The Secret Garden' today.  Your inner child will thank you.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

'The Hunger Games Trilogy' is genius. Real or not real?

The Hunger Games series, belies the simplicity of the clear, present-tense prose and the immediacy of the first-person narrative that makes the books so addictive.  Yes they are hugely popular and yes, you WILL NOT be able to stop reading them until you have turned the last page, but there is so much going on in these texts than first meets the eye. 
To start with, there is the food motif running through the text.  As such it reminds me somewhat of Dickens, with regular, detailed accounts of meals being prepared, cooked and enjoyed.  Of course, in a world where people are prepared to risk their lives to hunt for their next meal, it is only right that food should be so central to the plot.  However, on a symbolic level, it is no co-incidence that Peeta, one of the central characters, is a baker, and in particularly, a bread-maker.  If bread is the source of life, then that is what Peeta's function in the story is:  he is the one who protects life and ensures that life can continue in District 12 where the main characters, Katniss, Gale, Haymitch and others all live.  

The story is set in some future time on earth, in the country of Panem, which is divided into 12 districts.  The Capitol controls the districts and as a punishment for an earlier rebellion, the districts must send two children to trials by combat, where they fight each other, gladiator style, to the death.  The final surviving contestant is crowned the winner and so brings back much needed supplies and food to their district.
It is pretty barbaric stuff and deterred me from reading the books for some time. However, what people failed to tell me was that this is more a love story than anything else.  It involves a love triangle that is so thoroughly engaging that it makes for compulsive reading.  Will Katniss fall for the boy who bakes the bread or the boy who hunts in the woods? 
One is completely open and honest, the other silent and brooding.  We feel for Katniss, because, like her, we the reader can hardly choose between the two ourselves.
But Katniss's troubles go way beyond who to love:  she is trying to stay alive,  protect her family and ultimately save society.  As such, this text is about much more than teenagers in love.

In fact, Collins is actually considering huge ideas in this book, such as how society can ever trust those in positions of power.  This subversive idea runs through all three texts, but is especially important in the third book, 'The Mockingjay'.  From the start, Katniss has trust issues.  She clearly lives up to her name and is quite cat-like in a number of ways: the green-eyed girl, the solitary hunter who, who is slow to warm to people, is distrustful and likes to travels light.
On one level, the series is looking at what holds societies together.  It seems that a down-trodden people can be united by a story, the story of a boy who secretly loved a girl and promised himself to save and protect her and even to give his life in the process.  But could a story of self-sacrifice and love change the world and bring about a revolution?  It seems that history supports this theory.  One need only look to the 
bible stories and the life of Jesus to find parallels.  And so the irony is that Collins's post-Christian tale could be read as an essentially a Christian text?  It is just a thought... Or perhaps Collins is just echoing the much-quoted 1960s mantra, that ultimately, 'All you need is Love'.
The author is also toying with the modern fears about the environment and self-insufficiency that are such key-phrases in today's society.  This is taken too far in District 13, where food is rationed on the basis of the amount of calories one expends on any given day, and shoes are inherited from others, regardless of comfort or fit. 
There are elements of the story that are fanciful and quite fantastic.  We are presented with a semi-Cinderella figure, who hails from the mining district, the 'Seam', where people have coal dust deeply embed into the very crevices and wrinkles of their skin.  She is taken from the world of cinders and is transformed into the 'girl on fire', beautified and made-over.  Yet, there is much of the world of Panem that is not so very different from our reality.  A world of inequalities, divided into the haves and have-nots, those who consume more than they produce, countries on the edge of extinction because of starvation... all this rings true for planet Earth now as much as it does in Collins's fictional future version. 
She considers the frivolity of modern living, represented so brilliantly here by the citizens of the Capitol.  Their world is so superficial and cosmetic, that it's citizens no longer resemble real humans: some growing whiskers and green-tinged skin for visual effect.  And, f
inally, we come to what 'The Huger Games Trilogy' is all about: being human.  Collins considers the ultimate sin against humanity, the denial of one's basic right to protect one's young.  Katniss only finds herself as a tribute in the Games because she is trying to protect her young sister Prim.  Peeta however, once he has been selected in the reaping, decides to play a different game - his own game. In an act of rebellion, he opts not to fight for survival, but to fight for Katniss, to protect her, to be, ultimately, more than a slave, fighting to save his own life, but to be human.  This is Peeta's gift to Katniss. He teaches her what it is to love, to be human. 
Katniss is a product of her world and does not know how to demonstration real affection because she has forgotten to trust her human emotions. She is a victim of the times and it takes a long time for her to reprogramme herself, to learn how to deal with a full array of emotions and to re-humanise herself. 
This must surely be the case in all war zones and Collins is making a clear anti-war statement in this text or is she?  She seems to be saying that it is a natural, basic human right to want to protect your family, your loved ones, nay even your home-place and country when it is under attack.  Yet, she is clearly saying that such actions come at a price and that price is the loss of innocence.  Yet, when it comes to it, Katniss finally realises, submission to the enemy is illogical: the damage is already done, pain is already being inflicted and fear that someone might get hurt is not a reason not to fight.  There are, inevitably, some things that are worth fighting for.  

The three texts in this series are, 'The Hunger Games', 'Catching Fire' and 'Mockingjay'.  They are sold as separate books, but they flow straight into one another and should really be published in one, larger, volume.  Beware! You must purchase them all together to avoid delay/pain/withdrawal.  So, is the Hunger Games Series worth reading?  Well, as Katniss says at the end of 'Mockingjay', 'There are much worse games to play', and you could do much worse than to give some time to these thought-provoking and  entertaining books.  'The Hunger Games Series is genius'. Real or not real?  Real.