Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Patriotic Poems ~ by Robert Maynack Leonard

I came across the little book of poetry while holidaying this summer in Liverpool.  It was deep in the back of an old secondhand bookshop, wedged in between Dickens and Austen and at first glance, I thought it was a prayer book.
Covered in green faux-leather and edged in gold, it has all the solemnity that is so becoming in a poetry anthology that has patriotism and war as its theme, compiled as it was in 1914, the year the Great War commenced.  The book itself is pocket-size, small enough to fit comfortably into one's hand, and indeed it is indented along one edge, perhaps by many years of being gripped, tightly, or so I imagine, and the cover bears a little scar where a thumb might have pressed down too tightly, too often. It is itself a battle-worn, hardly surprising, having survived two World Wars and being one hundred years old this year.
The book begins with a poem by the Poet Laureate at the time, Robert Bridges, and ends with one by Robert Browning.  In between are offerings by Shakespeare, Tennyson and all the great British writers that you can name and others that you may not be so familiar with. Bridge's poem is dated August 1914 and is a blatant call to arms, rather than a pensive reconsidering of war that modern readers are used to from the now famous WWI poets, like Owen, Graves and Sassoon.
'Thou careless, awake!
Thou peacemaker, fight!
Stand, England, for honour, 
And God guard the Right!'
And so it goes.  Other poems refer to the Napoleonic Wars, to Coruna and Trafalgar, and even others reference the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth I and even the battle of Agincourt. To read these poems one might think that England has always been at war.

In the 'Prefatory Note', the author refers to a war poem as 'a song that serves a nation's heart', itself a patriotic deed.  He claims that this book of poetry will be as a garland at the feet of  unknown, forgotten soldiers, 'now or soon to be forgotten', and says that it will be the task of future anthologists to separate the 'the wheat from the chaff of topical verse'.  You will find no Rupert Brooke here, though his poem, 'The Soldier' would sit very well, in tone and timbre, with those that fill the pages of this publication, such as 'England, My England', The Path of Duty', and 'We Band of Brothers'.

One cannot help but wonder about such a book; if it was carried into battle by some soldier buoyed, for how little a time, by its words of patriotism and self-sacrifice; or if it was cherished by mother or wife, who clung to its grandiose words for hope and solace.

Either way, I think it must have been bought and read in the spirit of hope, the equivalent to a prayer, a wish that everything would turn out well.

When I first came across the little book of poetry, I thought that it was a prayer book. I think that I was right.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave ~ by John Boyne

The best thing about this book, 'Stay Where You are and Then Leave, by John Boyne, is the delightful, endearing Alfie Summerfield, the novel's central character.  His name has a definite warmth to it, but it is not for that that we come to care for him.   Perhaps it is this five year old's love of hard-boiled sweets, or his desire to accompany his father to work everyday on his milk round, or even that he falls asleep on the stairs listening in to his parents discussing the outbreak of the war.  For all of these reasons and more, he wraps his tiny fingers around our hearts at the beginning of the book, and never lets them go.
The story compares Alfie's world, just as war is declared, with the world four year's later, as the war comes to an end.  It is heartbreaking to see how people and places have changed: nothing is untouched.  Boyne cleverly illustrates how war can destroy whole communities, even when the battles are fought hundreds of miles away.

Alfie is resourceful too, secretly helping his mother to make ends meet, by shining shoes at King's Cross Station.  Alfie and his mother have an intimate, caring relationship, yet they still keep secrets from one another - all because of the war.  His relationship with Georgie, his dad, is also very close, which is why we come to hate the war almost as much as Alfie.  When the war takes Georgie away from us, Alfie and the family at Damley Road, we are all left bereft and constantly fearful that he will not return.

Boyne uses this little boy to recreate the war experience of so many families who lived through the Great War.  Our anxieties are Alfie's.  He cares little about who wins the war, the battles, the generals. the rights and wrongs of it all.  What he cares about, is getting his dad back in one piece, and by the end of the book, we feel just the same.

The book deals with conscientious objectors, shell-shock victims, internment camps on the Isle of Mann, and  ladies who pass out white feathers for cowardice.  As such, it deals with many aspects of the war and allows younger readers, and older ones too, to enter into the lives of those who lived one hundred years ago.  Boyne has timed the  publication of this book to coincide with the one hundred year anniversary of the commencement of WWI, and I think it is as good a time as any to introduce young readers to the experience of those who lived through the war that they said would end all wars.
A good read for eleven to thirteen year olds who have a taste for history.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Man in the Wooden Hat ~ By Jane Gardam

This short novel, of just 233 pages, is the sequel to the wonderful novel, 'Old Filth', a book which is so much better that its title suggests.  The story follows the life of Edward Feathers, retired judge, and his wife Betty.  This novel, re-tells their life stories, but this time from Betty's perspective.  I say that, but in reality, in touches on Filth's story too.  Thoughts and feelings expressed in the first book are often at odds with those in this novel, and it adds a lovely realism to the text.  The events are filled-out and facts augmented.

Don't we all recall different versions of our lives, that those closest to us might not even recognize?  Memories cannot be relied on as truth, and so it is in this novel.  How we remember things and how memory is essentially unreliable, is at the core of this novel.

What is so endearing about this book, is that nearly every scene carried a lovely poignancy because it relates to something else that has happened, in previous chapters or in the previous book.  For example, the first time that Betty meets Veneering's son, Harry, he is under a table, eating.  She loves this little boy from the first.  
But when one remembers back to 'Old Filth', we recall how Edward used to eat under the table too when he was first sent away from his home in Malaya.  As the reader of these novels, only we can see the truth, can see how the characters know only part of the story, and this knowledge is delicious.   It makes gods of us and makes the characters all the more dear to us.  Betty cannot possibly know, as we do, this interesting fact about her husband, and here Gardam makes her point: people are so complex, that they are often unknowable. 

What I like about the book?- Simple - I love the character of Old Filth. (Filth stands for the mocking phrase - Failed in London Try Hong Kong - which is a joke, as Filth is always immaculate and has an outstanding career. ) From the very first, when we meet the little motherless boy, cast our of his home in Malaya, with a father so caught in his own grief on the death, in childbirth, of his young wife, we are hooked.  In the second novel we watch wait to see if  Betty will love him as he deserves and know, before she does, that she loves him.  We despair when their wires get crossed, when one does not realise how the other loves them.  

The plot itself is not a roller coaster ride; it just reflects the lives lived by so-called Raj orphans, the basic events in life that we can all relate to.  In fact, we are told the ending close to the beginning.  In this story, we find ourselves going round in circles, uncovering more and more about the characters, regardless of plot.  This story belongs to the characters, the plot is immaterial.  

Still, this book is deeply satisfying and provokes readers to reconsider what we actually know about ourselves and those we love.  It even makes us question love itself; can we ever truly love another person, appreciate them or, know them. This is a very unsettling and quite a radical concept, hidden away in what appears to be a very traditional novel.   

The book considers marriage, motherhood, rejection, infidelity, betrayal, self-deception, the end of empire and the invisibility of the elderly; quite an achievement for such a short novel.  
As for the title of the book - again a strange choice -  I have spent some time thinking about what it means and I have come to the conclusion that it refers to guilt.  Of course, it specifically alludes to Ross, Filth's friend, who wears such a hat.  It also could refer to the sculpture made from bog oak that Veneering let drop in the museum; he had a wooden hat.  Because of its connection with both of these men, it strikes me that the wooden hat symbolizes guilt.  

Whenever Betty does something she oughtn't to, without Edward's knowledge, Ross appears.  Sometimes, it is not clear if Betty had conjured him from her imagination, or has dreamed him up.  This adds to the mystical quality of Ross and makes him seem all the more dangerous to Betty.  He haunts her, just as guilt does, knowing, as he does, all her little secrets.  He appears out of nowhere and prevents her from leaving Edward - the same can be said of guilt.

Like 'Old Filth', this book, which is much better than its name suggests, is one of my favourites - I am sure that I will read and re-read it, for such good books are meant to be treasured and valued.  Next - to read the third and final novel from he series: 'Last Friends'.  Published in 2013, it has a lot to live up to - but I think Gardam, now in her eighties, is up to it.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Out of the Dark ~ by Ken Kinsella

Earlier this year I attended the launch of Ken Kinsella's book, Out of the Dark 1914-1918 : South Dubliners Who Fell in the Great War, a 430 page tome, that took over 13 years to research and write.  When I held the heavy book in my hand, I first was reminded of James Joyce and that reported quote of his regarding Ulyses...'if it look me seven years to write it, it had better take you seven years to read it'  etc..etc.

But Kinsella's book is altogether different.  The author has taken great pains to make this a text that even those with a limited interest in history can digest quite easily.  Simply put, Kinsella has researched all the men from South Dublin who died in World War One, and collected the information together in this book.  But this is much more than just an ordinary reference book, Out of the Dark  is a detailed patchwork of interrelated stories, based on a place-centered pattern. This clever structure enables us to see how whole communities were effected by the war.

Each chapter begins with a geographical description of the place where the soldiers grew up - its contours, its rivers, its landscape - adding a sense of realism and rootedness that seems to highlight, all the more, that these were Irish soldiers, Dublin men, who went away to war.  Merging history and geography together in this way, cleverly reminds us who these soldiers were, and fixes them to a place that still exists.  They are not just lost in memory, assigned to some ancient battle long forgotten.  No, they belonged to Kilternan, Dundrum, Rathmines, Carrickmines and Foxrock etc. places that Dubliners are so familiar with in our day to day lives, and as such, cannot so easily be forgotten.  I, for one, will never see these places in quite the same way again.

Donald Lockart Fletcher from Shankill,
who died tragically during training.
In Kinsella's book, we see the impact of the war mapped out, its shadow spreading across the South Dublin landscape in a very visual, geographic way, that has never been done before in this genre.  There is more than just a black and white regurgitation of statistics here; the information lifts off the pages, as the contours of a 3-D map, vibrant with the details of each locality and its individual people.   It covers a wide sweep of the South Dublin landscape, then zooms in to closely uncover the tragic stories of those who died in The Great War.  The move from macro to micro analysis, is compelling and quite cinematic in style, something that would translate easily to the small screen I am certain.

Yet, it does even more than that: it moves laterally through families, shining a light on the lives of those who were left behind, the long forgotten fiancee, mother, father, brother, whose lives were also inevitably touched by the huge losses in the 1914-1918 war.
Kinsella deftly makes connections between families too, noting uncanny twists of fate and coincidences that wouldn't be out of place in a work of fiction.  Consider the story of local boys, Joseph Plunkett and his close childhood friend, Kenneth  O'Morchoe, which features in the chapter on Kilternan.  In the 1916 Rising, they came to face eachother in Kilmanham jail, the former facing execution, the latter in charge of the firing squad.  There are varying versions of how the story played out, but Kinsella's research finally uncovers the truth of things - but you will have to read the book to find out what happened next.

Members of the Findlater family
who lost two sons in WWI
Each chapter shows how families were decimated by the war, like the two brothers of the Findlater family.  It forces us too to consider the wider context: how groups of local women must have grieved together for their sons and how young women would have condoled together over the lost of their young men, as dreams of future lives together disappeared over night.  A promise of future happiness came to nothing for one Sybil Chambers, who exchanged her beloved William Halpin for the sum of 550 guineas, the amount left to her in his will, signed while in France the year the war ended.  Perhaps she had sensed, as he clearly had, that he might not arrive home to her safely.  And Kinsella does not end there; he follows the next generation forward too at times.  We learn that William's brother, George survived the war, but his only son went on to be killed in WWII.  In this book, the plot lines go sideways and downwards as well as forwards and back.

The book is dotted with poetry too, giving a philosphical edge to the information and something for us to quietly ponder. The greats are all here, Owen, Ledwidge etc., but there are other, unknown poets also, friends of fallen soldiers, who, like, L.A.G. Strong, could only voice their deep felt emotion through poetic verse.

Ken Kinsella's book is for anyone who has an interest in families, history, genealogy, The Great War, geography and poetry - in short, it is for everyone.  It would make a great Christmas present, especially in this centenary year of the war's commencement.  I am very excited about this book, and not just because it contains information about some of the soldiers that I am researching for my War Stories project, but because it is a mammoth piece of social history and research.  It tells a story that needed to be told, and in return, needs to be read.  I know of at least two people who will be getting this book in their (rather large) Christmas stocking this year.  Do you?

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Life After Life ~by Kate Atkinson

Simply put - I loved this book.  Life After Life - by Kate Atkinson, is a book you will not be able to put down.  It is a definite choice for your 'must read' list this summer.  Its fascinating structure, is like nothing I have ever read before and kept me enthralled throughout.
The story is based on an age old question: what would we do differently if we could live our lives over again? As such, the novel  is quite philosophical at times, prompting its readers to consider the big ideas: life, death and fate.
I mean, if you could go back and live your life over, what one thing would you change?  Avoid ever meeting your ex?  Stand up to that bully in school?  Somehow prevent Princess Diana from visiting Paris in August 1997... or maybe from marrying Prince Charles in 1981?  But surely if you could go back in time and change history, you would make it momentous: foil the September 11 plot, murder Hitler?  These are the thoughts that must have pulled at Kate Atkinson's mind as she danced her way through this novel, and it certainly feels like this was a pleasurable book to write.  The characters can live forever - dying, then being reborn, over and over : they can survive anything.  There is something very satisfying, as a reader, to know that the people in the story will make it through; that no matter how bad things get, they will be okay.  . This very plot device enables Atkinson to deal with some very disturbing issues, such as rape, domestic abuse and murder, in a palatable way.  And in turn, she makes us, as readers, face the idea in our own lives: no matter how bad it gets, where there is life...

The protagonist, Ursula Todd, is born in 1910, in rural England, as the snow begins to fall, but lack of medical assistance and a complication at birth, means that she dies immediately.  In an instant, she is reborn, as the snow falls and the story begins again, made possible because one detail was changed: this time her mother had a small pair of scissors at hand to cut the cord.  And so the story progresses, moving swiftly through the Great War period, and up to and beyond World War Two, with Ursula dying many times, and being reborn over and over.  And so we come to realise that the title, 'Life After Life', actually refers to a series of lives, following one after the next and not a reference to the afterlife that one usually associates with dying.

One thing that I noticed in the book, was that, perhaps, it was not only Ursula who could go back in time and change history.  It seems that her mother too, made notes on how to do things differently 'next time round' - like when Ursula died the first time - 'remember to keep a small pair of scissors nearby', she tells herself.

 I thought it interesting too that the only thing that Ursula wanted of her mother's, years later, was the carriage clock, which her mother, in turn, had taken from her mother's home.  This special clock, with its associations time and perhaps time-travel,  passing from mother to daughter, is a very interesting concept and added a layer of detail to the story that was delightful.

Indeed, there is much food for thought in this novel, but more than anything, it is a hugely enjoyable read, with characters that live and breath, and will haunt you long after the final page has been turned and the book returned to the shelf.  Simply put - read 'Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, or spend the rest of the year wishing that you had.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring up the Bodies' ~ by Hilary Mantel

A 'Must-Read'.

I never like to lump two novels together into the same blog-pot, as it were, especially not two such exceptional books, but so seamless was the transition between these texts, that they feel like one in my imagination, and so I will break the rule just this once.

Of course, Wolf Hall came first.

From the opening scene, I was hooked.  Thomas Cromwell, a young English man, is being beaten badly by his father.  He is lying on the hard cobblestones, in agony, unable to lift his head to avoid his father's stamping heel.

How will he make his escape?  How can he survive when all the odds seem so stacked against him?  We are at once inside his head, experiencing what he experiences, feeling every hurt and ache as he feels it.  The novel is written in the continuous, present tense, making the narrative seem instantaneous, current, and so very real that one forgets that the book is set in the 16th century.  And that is my favourite thing about these book - and I have to lay my cards on the table from the start, dear reader - I loved these books - my most absolute favourite thing about the books is how fresh they feel.  They might as well have been set in 2014 in some ways, feeling every bit as real and perhaps even moreso, compared to many modern novels.

In part, it is because the book is told in the present tense, but also because the central character, Thomas Cromwell tells, the story, as if he is writing a verbal record of his life. But it is not as formalized as a traditional diary, because an omniscient narrator is also present; but the reader hops willy-nilly, in and out of Cromwell's consciousness throughout.

I must explain early on that the Cromwell at the centre of this novel is not Oliver Cromwell, the most hated of men (on this side of the Irish Sea at any rate).  No, this is the story of King Henry VIII's influential adviser, Thomas Cromwell, and how he came to hold such a position of power, beginning, as he did, as the son of a blacksmith.   It is almost completely impossible not to google Thomas Cromwell while reading this novel. Hilary Mantel has created such a vibrant, detailed account of sixteenth century England, that it is difficult to separate what has been imagined and what has not.  I continually found myself wondering, 'Did Cromwell actually say that?  Did he really think that?'

Clearly, Mantel has meticulously researched the period and the lives of those who populate these epic, historical tales.  We learn about the ins and outs of Medieval life, the working of Henry's court; the clothes and styles worn by people of fashion, (or not as the case may be). But we also see, first hand, the corruption of those in power (some things never change), petty sibling rivalries, bitter family squabbles etc.

Like I said, there is something of the moment about these novels. Mantel has managed to described the world of Medieval England with an immediacy that is beguiling.  She acts as an archaeologist who has resurrected these ancient characters and draped them anew, and presented them to modern readers, pumped fresh blood into their veins, fleshed them out with new passions, new feelings, new life.

In this way, Mantel reminds me of William Shakespeare.  It is the very humanity of Hamlet, King Lear and Othello, that allows these ancient creations to live and breath still in our imaginations, more than four hundred years since they first graced the Elizabethan stage.  It is just so with Thomas Cromwell.  Mantel has managed to do just that, filling the gaps in our knowledge about these historical figures, with her own imaginings.  She speculates on how they might have felt on getting married; when their first child was born; how they spent Easter, and even the family's involvement in the Christmas nativity celebrations.

Who cannot relate to such familiar, family events?  It is because these characters' lives are draped with the familiar, cloaked with the ordinary, that the world they inhabit feels so wonderfully real.

One of my favourite moments in the book is when we are presented with the delightful imagine of Cromwell's young daughter Grace, dressed for the nativity play performance.  Her home-made angel costume, replete with long, peacock feathers, is lovingly made by her proud father.  This touching scene could be taken from any of our childhoods. Mantel chooses these universal memories to move us, prompt us, to imagine this 16th century world and, like the Thomas Cromwell of her novel, she manages it all effortlessly.

And so we are all left waiting for the third, and final, installment of this trilogy.  History dictates how this story will end, so we know, at least on one level, what awaits the blacksmith's son.  Yet, we can rest assured that the story will never have been told in such a way before and that Mantel will take us on a journey like no other, but it will be familiar in a strangely ordinary, human way.  We only hope that we will not have to wait too long.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Gallery of Vanished Husbands ~ by Natasha Solomons

Already a big fan of Natasha Solomons, I couldn't wait to read her latest novel - hoping against hope that it would be just as good as 'Mr Rosenblum's List', or 'The Novel in the Viola'.  Was I disappointed?

Well, 'The Gallery of Vanished Husbands' is a novel that follows the life of 30 year old Juliet Montague; mother of two, Leonard and Freida, and the wife of 'vanished husband', George.  The latter left home on her birthday, and hasn't been seen in seven years.

She is just tolerated by the tight-nit, conservative Jewish community in a small village in England, where she lives, because she is an 'aguna': a woman whose husband has abandoned her.  She has to live as a living widow, because she is neither divorced, nor single.  To make matters worse, her husband was a known gambler and thief; local gossip claims that she 'could  not keep a man', and even her mother begins to feel guilty that they brought shame to the family by allowing her to marry a stranger, and not one of the usual local, 'nice boys'.

But Juliet feels no such guilt, and actually enjoys doing things her own way.  As such, she is a very likable character.  And when she fritters away her savings for the family fridge on a portrait of herself by a handsome, young artist, and complete stranger, we cheer her on, despite what the neighbours might think.
So begins a new life for Juliet, and Charlie, the young artist, and she embark on a business career together, setting up 'Wednesdays', an art gallery, where Juliet is the curator.  Of course, other artists come on board, and Juliet becomes a success in her own right. Yet, there is the problem of the missing husband, a love interest and two adolescent children to factor into things, but you get the picture. (Ahem!)

But what about the book in general?  Is it a good read?

Well, to start with, I thought that the structure of this book was very clever; it reads like a gallery catalog; each  chapter beginning with a painting, listed as it would be in an art exhibition.  The ensuing chapter then deals with that painting and how it came about.  The down-side of this formalized technique is that each painting must be contrived to fit into the story and, at times, I thought that the story and life of the characters became a little stifled as a result.  I wanted to stay with Max and Juliet in the cottage in the woods, but things move on quite quickly in this book - there is always another painting to be introduced and explained - and so, alas, we had to leave them behind too soon.


All the male characters abandon Juliet at some point in the book: George, Leonard, Max and even Charlie.
The only exception is Mr Green, Juliet's adoring father. In this way, this is a book about fathers too: the good father, Mr Green - who is always happy to see Juliet and has a special smile just for her, and George, the bad father - who loves gambling more than his children, and cannot seem to give himself wholly to fatherhood.

Indeed, the title refers to a newspaper column in an American newspaper, looking for men who have all abandoned their wives back in Europe' The Gallery of Vanished Husbands'.  Once again, as in her other books, 'The Novel in the Viola' and 'Mr Rosenblum's List', Solomons uses traumatic periods in human history, in this case the end of World War Two, to add drama to the plot.  It is the war that brings Bulgarian refugee George to England in the first place; a stranger who makes the older women anxious and the younger ones swoon.

|But there is another gallery in the book, not just the one of book's title, and that is the gallery of Juliet's portraits.  

One might be excused for wondering about Juliet's slightly self-absorbed, quasi-narcissisticobsession with her painted self.  What must it have been like for her children to grow-up surrounded by an ever-multiplying collection of their mother's image, gazing at them from every available wall space in their average-sized home? Perhaps this accounts for Freida's, at times, strained relationship with her mother.  Indeed, the narrator explains it best at the the beginning of the book when she says, 'Juliet Montague wanted to be seen'.

And, it is true, identity, is another key theme in this novel.  

Juliet is constantly dealing with the expectations placed on her by the conservative Jewish community that she belongs to; her parents; her children; her friends, and even herself.  But more than anything she has to deal with the fact that she is a wife, yet not a wife; not a divorcee nor a widow.  The reason why Juliet is so upset with her husband for stealing the portrait of her, is because he has stolen her identity, her sense of self, her position in society.  In addition, he has made her an aguna - a living widow - someone who is not free to marry another, but not a socially acceptable married woman either.  She is a persona non grata, so George has, in fact, stolen her identity, making him truly the thief everyone knew him to be. As in real life, we must deal with how our identity changes as we grow older, and in a way, this is what Solomons cleverly comes to terms with in this, her third novel.

My one wish for this novel is that it came with a collection of paintings or illustrations.  (Ok - I realise that this is quite an outlandish ask and nigh on impossible - but it could happen!!?) It seems a little hard that in a novel filled with many references to portraits of Juliet, there would not even be one for us one to look at. But I suppose, that is what the imagination is for.

Read this book - buy it for your friends - you won't be disappointed!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

The Daughters of Mars ~ by Thomas Keneally

As we approach the centenary of the start of the First World War, it seems that television, radio and newspapers are full of stories about people who lived one hundred years ago - and rightly so.  Book shops are no different. So when my eye caught this beautiful book cover in a shop recently, and I read the blurb, I knew that I would have to read it.
It tells the story of two nurses, sisters in fact, Sally and Naomi Durance, from a small town in Australia, who leave home to do their bit for the war effort in Europe.  (The title, with its reference to Mars, the god of war, is very apt and is referred to numerous times in the book.)  They are not very close; theirs is a complicated relationship.  One had fled the ties of filial duty early on, leaving the younger sister to stay behind with the responsibility of a sick mother to age her before her time. Both saw the war as a means of escape; the similarities between them are there from the very start of the book.
Keneally cleverly uses the sisters to tell the story of the Australian men and women volunteers, as they move from one theatre of war to another.  They begin with Gallipoli, and are placed on a hospital ship, and are met with the ceaseless tide of injured and dying from the Dardenelles.
Of course, they are not alone, and we are presented with a collection of nurses, from varying backgrounds, along with officers and members of the Royal Army Medical Corps, to give us a more complete view of the war.  The reader is left with an anxious feeling that not everyone can survive the fighting; surely some must perish? In that way we are can never rest easy, just as Sally and Naomi cannot.

From Turkey and the hospital island of Lemnos, the girls are sent to various hospitals and clearing stations in France and Belgium. Keneally's detailed research allows us to step inside an army medical tent, to witness, at close quarters, wound irrigation and amputation; death by poison gas and hemorrhage.  It is, after all, a story about military nurses at a time of war; at times the stench of freshly-spilt blood is almost over-whelming.
Yet, there is something about Keneally's narrative style here that keeps us at a distance from the main characters.  Perhaps it has something to do with there being two central protagonists, but I always seemed to be at one remove from Sally and Naomi; as if the story were being told second hand.
Much of the time, we were told what the characters did, not silently shown for ourselves, to observe and imagine.  Keneally also decided not to use punctuation, specifically apostrophes, when people were talking, which made some sections of dialogue difficult to follow. It was more annoying than anything.
Yet, I felt that it worked well in one section of the story, when the girls are in a dangerous situation, and have to talk to themselves, silently, to get through.  Here, I thought, it was interesting not knowing if they were indeed talking to themselves, of if anyone could hear them.  In the author's notes, we are told that he used this technique to mirror that lack of punctuation in wartime letters and diaries - but I think that makes little sense - as his book was not a diary or letter, and there were times when the missing punctuation was quite distracting.
While I am at it, I might as well comment on another thing that I found annoying, and that was his clear anti-Irish comments in the book.  He invents an  Irish regiment, made up of foul-mouthed, brutal thugs, and declares at the end of the book, that he invented their part in the story.  In fact, it seemed to me, that every time the Irish were mentioned, he either referred to hard-gambling, hard-drinking or ignorant behaviour. He makes up for it, slightly, by creating an Irish nurse, Honora Slattery, who is one of Sally's pals, so he just about gets away with it.
What he doesn't get away with is the ending, which I will not give away here, not because it is sad or predictable, but because it breaks the rules of storytelling. It is most unusual, although Dickens played a similar trick with one of his novels. When you read the book - you will know what I mean.
I was fascinated by the sheer detail in the book and how much I learned about life in the Casualty Clearing Stations, on baord a hospital ship etc.  Keneally deals with the conscientious objectors, the mercy killings, the shell-shock, the cowardice, the bravery, the gas, the injuries, the destroyed relationships and the overall illogical logic of army life.  But because of the narrative style, I never came to love the central characters as I wanted to.  Knowing the fate of such men and women in real life - it was probably for the best.
I remember reading Schindler's Ark, Keneally's most famous novel, as a teenager, and being unable to put the book down until it was read. While he is dealing with another important story from history, that must be told, I do not think that he engages the readers with the same sort of intensity as he did with his earlier novel.
However, this is still a book worth reading.  It tells a story that must be told and indeed should be read.  As nurse Freud wisely comments at one point, 'Their heads are empty of history.  Sometimes... people need a history enema'.  Enough said.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Elizabeth Bishop ~ Life Lessons

Like most people who read her work, I have long thought of poet Bishop as a painterly poet, in the manner of G.M. Hopkins. No one can colour a scene like Elizabeth Bishop; it is her trademark.
Doubtless her powers of description are keener than most; the famous Bishop 'eye' never fails to capture the essence of a scene. As poet Robert Lowell once told her, 'No eye in the world has seen what yours has'.
Yet, having come to her poems after a gap of almost a decade, I find that they have changed during the passage of time, (or rather I have!) and I can suddenly see beyond the glorious description.

For a start, most unexpectedly, Bishop speaks to me as a mother. Bishop herself never had children, yet there is no escaping the female experience of motherhood in her work, in poems such as 'Filling Station'.  Here, the mother of the family featured in the poem, who live in the oil-soaked, gas station, is never mentioned, but is inescapably present.
Somebody embroidered the doily. Someone waters the plants ...Somebody arranges the cans of oil... Somebody loves us all.'  
Of course, Bishop is never specific, but I cannot help but imagine that the 'somebody' that is being referred
to is the mother of the greasy, monkey-suited family. She is the unseen home-maker, who crochets and maintains the home, beautifying the environment - not unlike Doris Day in the film, 'Calamity Jane' - whose Woman's Touch can 'Give a cabin glamour'.  This is a poem that praises the thankless lot of mothers the world over.
How many times a day have I questioned, 'Why oh why the doily?' when dusting, straightening, mending or fixing something or other about the house.  Why do women feel the need to create a home; to fill it with beautiful things; to furnish?  One might as well ask 'Why oh why IKEA?'

Here Bishop is touching on one of the most basic differences between men and women, but more importantly, she is making a statement about the over-riding feeling of love that a mother feels for her children.  The source of all that creativity, I believe, comes from the same place that love comes from.  That is why writers, poets , painters and composers often fall in love with the piece of art that they have made, referring to it even as 'their own darling child' (Jane Austen).  As a poet then, Bishop did know something of a mother's feelings.

We all of us have a mother; and so 'Somebody loves us all'. Yet the irony is, of course, that, when she was just five, Bishop's own mother was incarcerated  in a mental institution and she never saw her again.  The loss of a parent, alas, is something that I too have had to face in the intervening ten years since I first read this collection of poems.  Suddenly, Bishop's themes touch me, like never before.  Such a monumental event left an indelible impression on Bishop, so much so that fellow-poet Seamus Heaney, called her a 'poet of loss'.

Of course, loss was something that Heaney knew something about, having being sent home from school as a boy because his four year old brother had been killed by a car on the road outside his home.  In his poem 'Mid-Term Break', he recounts seeing young Christopher Heaney in the small white coffin, '
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,
Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.
Bishop describes something very similar in her poem 'First Death in Nova Scotia', where she recounts her first experience with death, when her young cousin Frank, named Arthur in the verse, died.  Most telling of all, it is her own mother who lays out the body and then lifts her up to see the body.  In this way, it is her mother who physically introduces Bishop to Death.  This would be the first death of many in Bishop's life.

The similarity between her poem and Heaney's is inescapable.  She writes:
Arthur was very small.
He was all white, like a doll
that hadn't been painted yet.
Jack Frost had started to paint him
the way he always painted
the Maple Leaf (Forever).
He had just begun on his hair,
a few red strokes, and then
Jack Frost had dropped the brush

and left him white, forever.
Both poets make reference to 'snow', the bruised head of the child, marked with the colour red, and give prominence to the small stature of the dead boy's body.  But while Heaney's poem swallows back raw emotion, Bishop's presents us with an emotionless view of death.  In fact, the child speaker in the poem transforms the death scene into something almost magical and fairytale-like, with references to Jack Frost and a prince and princess.  However, it is the title that is most telling, this being the first death of her experience, reminding us of the later death-like loss of her mother, which is conspicuously NOT the subject of the poem.  Once again, it is the absence in Bishop which is most telling.
Bishop rarely mentioned her mother in her poems, preferring instead to focus on geography, travel and animals amongst other things, yet the loss of her parents at such a young age seems to colour much of her writing.  And while Heaney did name Bishop a poet of loss, and it is true that Bishop experienced much of what can be termed 'awful',  in her life, her outlook remained wryly positive, despite everything.  As her poem 'The Bight', and her tombstone, claim: life goes on, despite everything, 'Awful but cheerful', which is something that I can certainly relate to more and more as the years go by. Who knows how Bishop will speak to me a decade from now - I promise to let you know as soon as I find out.

Monday, 31 March 2014

William Morris - Artist Craftsman Pioneer' ~ by R. Ormiston & N.M. Wells

Growing up in the 1970s, I have to say that we had our fair share of crazy, geometric-patterned wall paper around the house.  The colours brown, beige, orange and yellow come to mind, inevitably floral, swirling or hexagonal and kaleidoscopic.  I have to say that it was enough to turn me off wall-paper and complicated patterns completely, for a few decades.
Yet, how then can I explain my love for the work of William Morris, the master pattern designer of the Victorian age?    I suspect, like many others, I am drawn to his work by the richness of colour and simplicity of form; every pattern pulls you in and holds you transfixed.
So, when I found this copy of ' William Morris - Artist Craftsman Pioneer' by R. Ormiston & N.M. Wells', I was compelled to add it to my book collection;  I simply could let let it out of my sight.

If Morris railed against the industrial revolution, he glorified in nature and sought to make the world a more
beautiful place.  In this book, it is clear to see that he fulfilled that goal.

The book deals with all of the things that inspired Morris, history, nature, poetry, art and social change. Each page is covered with rich reprints of his designs, while at the same time, explaining his ideology and technique.  As such, it is the perfect combination of biography and portfolio; something to satisfy your mind and eye at the same time.
Working in an organic chronological way, the book follows Morris's many interests and new directions, every time supplying a visual aid to accompany the text.
If nothing else, this book will remind you that there is colour in the world and that simple patterns are things of  great beauty.  It has certainly cured me of my horror of wallpaper: even those overpowering 1970s patterns seem a little more appealing to me me now.

In his lifetime, Morris wrote over 90 books - so he deserves a place among the other authors in my book blog - if not for his writing, then for the many beautiful ways he patterned a page, a cloth, a tile, with colour and style.

'Have nothing in your house that you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,' William Morris once famously said.  Well, then, I know that he would have been very pleased with this sumptuous hardback, created by Ormiston and Wells, as it succeeds perfectly on both counts.

This is a large, hardback, coffee table book, of about 190 pages, replete with index and introduction.  If you
know someone who enjoys arts and crafts, art history, or just simply loves to look at beautiful books, then this would make a wonderful gift for them.  And if not - then you may very well have to keep this book for yourself.  I predict you will not be able to part with it once you see it with your own eyes.  It may even set you re-imagining your childhood, making everything suddenly seem beautiful - well perhaps that is a step too far even for William Morris.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Lizzy Bennet's Diary ~ by Marcia Williams

This is a sweet little book, full of witty references to Jane Austen's 'Pride and Prejudice'.  As with every proper diary, it is crammed full of detailed observations and private comments about those around her.  As such, the book reads like a summary of Austen's novel, with additions relating to every day life - such as favourite fabrics and  ribbons; mementos and  souvenirs.  This works particularly well, because we experience so much of the novel from Elizabeth's point of view.  

However, there are times that the Lizzy in William's book says some things that Austen's Lizzy would never say, such as 'Although Charlotte does not like me to
mention it, she is already twenty-seven years old - nearly ten years my senior!'  Of course, the real Elizabeth Bennet would never say such a thing, and certainly would not refer to her dearest friend as an 'old maid' as Williams's Lizzy does.  I suppose that is the draw-back of condensing a long novel into such a concise format: much character development is omitted.  The brevity of the text is a little unsettling and at times the book is overly-simplistic, with Lizzy occasionally sounding too much like Lydia and Kitty - obsessing about ribbons and balls - than our beloved heroine.

There are over twenty letters in Austen's novel, and some of them feature here.  They are handwritten in beautiful fold out pages, and, as in the original text, they allow us to hear directly from the other characters in the novel, such as Mr Collins, Mrs Gardiner and Fitzwiliam Darcy. Some letters are copied verbatim from the mother text, while others are fabricated entirely from Williams's imagination.

We catch glimpses of Mr and Mrs Darcy, at home, at Christmas, preparing for dinner with Georgiana and the Gardiners.  Such delicious flights of fancy are what make this book worth having.

But let us not forget the wonderful illustrations that accompany the book - Marcia Williams is clearly an
illustrator first and a writer second.  They are full of detail and will draw you to the book again and again.  They may lead you to believe that the book is more suitable for a younger audience, but I think that readers who are very familiar with Austen's novel, probably older book-lovers, will get a great kick out of the many in-jokes and references.

That said, there is much to enjoy in this book, for readers of every age.  Well, how could it fail? It is inspired by the great Austen herself!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Beautiful Books ~ 'Dear Peter' Anniversary Edition

Continuing the series on 'beautiful books', I wanted to show you this one hundred and tenth anniversary edition of Beatrix Potter's 'Dear Peter', which features many of the letters that the author wrote to children of friends, and fans of her picture book stories.  This miniature hardback book, called Dear Peter, with its bronze, guilt-edged pages, contains the very best of those letters.

Indeed, the entire series of twenty-three tales detailing the adventures of semi-human, prettily clad creatures, first began as a collection of letters.  Peter Rabbit, arguably her best known creation, made his first appearance in 1893, in a letter to cheer-up an ailing little boy called Noel Moore. What a lucky little boy!

For our enjoyment, this first letter is presented, in full, here in this book, complete with illustrations of Peter himself, and his incorrigible siblings, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail.

It didn't take much to transform these letters into the stories that have regaled and entertained generations of children in the intervening one hundred and ten years. What is especially nice about this collection of letters is that we get to learn what happened next to Peter and his friends: the letters
continue where the picture books end. It is clear that Potter was so enamored with her characters that she too was loath to say goodbye to them when their story was told.

But if you had conjured from the air the likes of Mrs Tiggy Winkle and Jemima Puddle-Duck, dressed them, sketched and draped them in water-colours and ink, you too may have delighted in resurrecting them occasionally to please yourself and young readers.
And how glad we are that she did!

If you delight in the tales and illustrations created by Beatrice Potter, or know a little person who does, then this is the book for you.  It's small size is in keeping with the format preferred by the author for her own books, and will fit nicely among the other, treasured Beatrix Potter books in your collection.