Gender reading – the results

A week ago I asked:  Can you detect the author’s gender simply by reading their words? Asking you to do this with some Booker prize winners proved to be rather challenging — no-one got all five right though Biblioglobal  got close with four correct answers.

The number of responses wouldn’t be enough to provide robust data from which I could draw conclusions so I won’t.

Here are the answers:

Exactly what constitutes a ‘feminine sentence’ I’m not exactly sure.

Extract One: Male Author. This is the opening to The Famished Road by Ben Okri . It won the Booker Prize in 1991. I tried reading it earlier this year but gave up  (you can see why here.  The extract below is the opening of the book

In the beginning was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

In that land of beginnings, spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was much feasting, playing and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the living. They had returned inconsolable for all the love they had left behind, all the suffering they hadn’t redeemed, all that  they hadn’t understood and for all that they had barely begun to learn before they were drawn back to the land or origins.

Extract Two: Female Author. This is the opening of The Sea The Sea by Iris Murdoch which won the Booker Prize in 1978. This was the extract that had the highest number of incorrect answers. 

The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning,  it leans quite against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam. Near to the horizon it is  luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald-green. At the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green,icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however not transparent. We are in the north and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea. Where the gentle water taps the rocks there is still a surface skin of colour. the cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon where it lightly pencils in with silver. Its blue gains word the zenith and vibrates there. But the sea looks cold, even the sun looks cold.

I had written the above, destined to be the opening paragraph of my memoirs when something happened which was so extraordinary and so horrible that I cannot bring myself to describe it even now after an interval of time and although a possible, though not totally reassuring explanation has occurred to me. Perhaps I shall feel calmer and more clear-headed after yet another interval.

Extract Three: Male Author.  Another landscape opening;  this one is from The Sea by John Banville, winner of the Booker prize in 2005 and one of my favourite Booker titles. 

The departed, the gods,on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No sail marred the high horizon. I would not swim, no, not ever again.

Someone has just walked over my grave.

Someone.

Extract Four: Male Author. This is a book upon which opinions are very divided because the male protagonist proves to be such a thoroughly distasteful character. The author is the Nobel Laureate J.M Coetzee and the book is Disgrace, winner of the Booker prize in 1999. Most people judged this correctly as a male author. Maybe it was the perspective of the author that led to that conclusion>

For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smiling and softly lit and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe and slides into bed beside him. “Have you missed me?” she asks. “I miss you all the time,” he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.

Soraya is tall and slim with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically he is old enough to be here father; but then technically one can be a father at twelve. He has been on her books for over a year; he finds her entirely satisfactory. In the desert of the week Thursday has become an oasis of luxe et volupté.

Extract Five: Female author. The Inheritance of Loss, of which this is the opening, was the second novel written by the Indian author I Kiran Desai. With it, she won the 2006 Booker Prize. Most people judged the gender of this correctly.

All day the colours had been those of dusk,mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.

Sai, sitting on the veranda, was reading an article about giant squid in an old National Geographic. Every now and then she looked up at Kanchenjunga, observed its wizard phosphorescence with a shiver. The judge sat at the far corner with his chessboard, playing against himself. Stuffed under his char where she felt safe was Mutt the dog, snoring gently in her sleep. A single bald lightbulb dangled on a wire above. It was cold. but inside the house, it was still colder, the dark, the freeze, contained by stone walls several feet deep.

 

 

The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

The Great CoatHelen Dunmore is an author whose books I’ve seen around for a long time but never got around to reading until recently when I found a bargain copy of The Greatcoat in a library sale.   I wasn’t blown away by it though I have the feeling that this is far from her best work and I would have done better to pick up The Siege or The Betrayal instead. 

The Greatcoat features a newly married doctor’s wife trying to get used to her new life in an unfamiliar Yorkshire town and a dark, cold flat where the smell of Brussels sprouts is ever present. It’s 1952 and although the war finished seven years earlier, food and other essentials are still being rationed.  Isabelle is lonely, cold and unable to sleep because of her landlady’s relentless pacing in he room above her bedroom.  Finding a dusty RAF greatcoat, crammed into the back of a tall cupboard, she spreads it over her bed for warmth.

In the middle of her dreams, she hears a knocking on the window to find a young, handsome Air Force staring in at her from outside the window.  Alec becomes an invaluable part of her life. Through him she is transported back to her childhood when she listened to the engines of Lancaster bombers overhead.  Their motorbike rides through the Yorkshire countryside give her the sense of freedom she lost with her marriage. But all the time there is a cloud of fear over their relationship as Alec’s next bombing raid draws near.

We’re not far into the story before it’s apparent that Alec is a ghost, one of the many RAF pilots that never made it back to the nearby airfield. He’s not your usual kind of spectre however— he’s not intent on killing her or seeking revenge but he can’t seem to leave Isabelle alone. Actually it’s not even Isabelle he wants, she just reminds him of the girl he loved when he was alive.

Dunmore does a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere of this novel,  manifested in the bleak abandoned airfield and the figure that appears nightly at the window. But overall the implausibility of the story overwhelmed me. Isabelle, for all that she is clearly an intelligent woman, seems oblivious to the fact Alec is not real. She never wonders how he seems to know so much about her, and never questions why he talks about bombing raids over Germany as if the war was still raging but instead completely buys into his accounts of his last raid. The more this nonsense continued, the more I wanted to shout at her “He’s a ghost you stupid woman.”

When Random House published The Greatcoat, they described it as Helen Dunmore’s first ghost story but it’s a pretty gentle one. There’s no evil or malevolence in evidence. Just despair. I would describe it more as a story about the enduring power of love but even then it didn’t thrill me.

 

Snapshot July 2015

The first day of a new month and it’s time to take a quick snapshot of what I’m reading, hearing and watching.

Reading

It seems insensitive to say I’m enjoying reading a book set partly in Auschwitz concentration camp. Appreciate would be a more apt and tactful word perhaps to describe my reaction to A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar.  It’s a curious mixture of alternative history and pulp mystery that imagines a prisoner in the concentration camp using his dreams to block out the pain of his experience. His dream envisages that Hitler’s rise to power was thwarted and Germany became a Communist state. Many of the former regime leaders, like Rudolph Hess,  have fled to London. Wolf (the meaning of the name Adolph) has become a private detective, hired by a beautiful Jewish woman to track down her sister. I came across this when the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prizes were announced last month and Tidhar’s book was named as one of the winners. I’m perplexed why this hasn’t had more attention because its a stunning novel.

Listening

I’ve returned to some crime fiction for my companion on the work commute. Ruth Rendell can be relied upon to tell a good story and The Vault is up to her usual standard so far. It features her best-known creation, Chief Inspector Wexford, except that in this novel he is chief inspector no longer having retired from the force. He’s finding the transition difficult so is more than happy when a former colleague asks him if he’d be able to help as unpaid advisor on a gruesome multiple murder. The Vault is the penultimate novel in the Inspector Wexford series. Sad to think that with Rendell’s death earlier this year there will be no more Wexfords.

Learning

I’ve been playing around with some apps and software programs that enable you to create pictures based on quotes. You know the kind of thing I’m sure – Facebook and Twitter are chock full of them. I thought they might liven up some of my Writers on Reading posts. Inevitably the free programs are rather limiting and I’m not ready to commit to a subscription just yet.  My attempts are a bit basic so far.

Kafkaquote

 

Has anyone come across a good but relatively easy to use program?

 

Behind the mask of Tokyo

shibuya-crossingWhen you think of Tokyo, what images come to your mind? High rise office buildings? Flashy electronic gadgets? Kimono clad women? Cherry Blossom trees? You’re likely to see them all if you ever get a chance to visit the capital although as a tourist you won’t touch more than the surface of this city.

Journalist and university professor Michael Pronko  has spent 15 years living and working in the city. The result is a collection of articles first published in Newsweek Japan and now published in English for the first time as Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life. Through more than 40 pieces he delves beneath Tokyo’s mask, reflecting on the idiosyncracies of its inhabitants and their predilection for maps, drink vending machines, noodles and posh shopping bags.

Michael claims he’s not a Japan specialist nor is he very good at the language.  Reading these articles however it’s clear that what he does have in abundance is an inquisitive mind and an ability to make the commonplace interesting and often funny. Through him we’re forced to re-evaluate objects and scenes that would otherwise escape our attention, from the narrowest alleyway to the slogans emblazoned on t shirts and the rituals that accompany the handling of money..

Trying to navigate his way to an unknown part of the city, for example, he’s mystified by little pink circles on his street map. Eventually he works out they mark the location of cherry trees in blossom.

It’s not the kind of thing that maps in the west would ever convey — the seasonal colour of trees. Yet. along streets, canals, streams and in parks are the maps indicting the probably rather exact position of cherry trees.

These symbols come to represent for him, not simply an example of the city’s obsession with detailed maps but a deeper desire of its inhabitants to escape, if only for a short time,  “to turn away from the ordered angles of mapped-out, boxed-in lives to walk and sit by flowers with friends, colleagues and family.”

Perhaps its that same desire to escape controls and a regulated life (whee rules and guidelines, instructions and regulations are posted on every conceivable surface) that explains why residents happily toss out their rubbish into the narrow passageways between buildings.

In a city with the best-swept gutters in the world, where neighbours spend as much time netting their trash as reading the morning paper, those gaps are piled with tossed out crap. Broken household appliances waiting for recycle coupons, buckets and mops left over from osoji spring cleaning, unused kerosene containers, and ripped-out PVC piping ally amid some of the world’s toughest, most adaptive urban weeds.

Many of the articles in this collection point to the contradictory nature of Tokyo life. The same people who recklessly dump their unwanted goods meticulously follow a bookshop etiquette of choosing only the wrinkled copies of magazines and books to read while standing, carefully avoiding disturbing the pristine copies at the back which are for purchasers not browsers. The same people carefully choose bags in which to present gifts to friends and family, taking considerable care before leaving the house to find just  the right bag, matching their bags to outfits and treating them as  important an accessory as a necklace or scarf.

It would be fascinating to discover why this is a city of such contrary habits. but the closest Michael Pronko gets is to point to its elusive nature.

Tokyo is an imaginary construct and does not really exist in any single place or in any exact way.  It’s a city whose hugeness refuses even metaphoric understanding. Tokyo slips through words like water through a net

An intriguing collection that I enjoyed dipping into and will be sharing with some of my colleagues in Tokyo to get their reactions.

End Notes

Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life was published by Raked Gravel Press in 2014

Thanks to Michael for providing me with a review copy.

 

 

Could you spot the female author?

Nicola Griffith’s recent analysis of six major literary awards has once again stirred up the long-running debate about gender and authorship. Having surveyed the winners of multiple awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker Prize, from 2000 to 2015, Griffith concluded that a novel is more likely to land a prize if the focus of the narrative is male.

When women win literary awards for fiction it’s usually for writing from a male perspective and/or about men. The more prestigious the award, the more likely the subject of the narrative will be male. … the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women.

Much of the ensuing debate has focused on Griffith’s assertion that “The literary establishment doesn’t like books about women” and the critical role played by women-only prizes in rectifying this imbalance.

What we haven’t seen is discussion on the relevance of gender in the reading experience itself. Perhaps the question we should be asking is not, why do books about men win more prizes, but does the gender of the author influence us as readers and if so, how? Does it sway our decision to choose a particular book for example? Does it change our response to what we read to know whether it was written by a man or woman? What if you didn’t know the author’s gender in advance, could you detect it from the text itself?

Virginia Woolf was one of the first to try and answer some of these questions. She felt there was a direct connection between gender and the form and style of the work. There existed for her a ‘feminine sentence'; one that was “of a more elastic fibre…. capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes” (Times Literary Supplement 1923).

Exactly what constitutes a ‘feminine sentence’ I’m not exactly sure.

I thought it would be fun to test out whether it’s possible to detect the author’s gender if all you had to work from was the text itself. Below are extracts from a range of twentieth century novels. The only clues I’ll give is that they are all by authors who have won the Booker Prize and each extract is from the opening of the novel. See if you can guess which are by a male author and which by a female. What influenced your decision.  I’ll reveal the answers next week.

Extract One 

In the beginning was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.

In that land of beginnings, spirits mingled with the unborn. We could assume numerous forms. Many of us were birds. We knew no boundaries. There was much feasting, playing and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the living. They had returned inconsolable for all the love they had left behind, all the suffering they hadn’t redeemed, all that  they hadn’t understood and for all that they had barely begun to learn before they were drawn back to the land or origins.

Extract Two

The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning,  it leans quite against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam. Near to the horizon it is  luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald-green. At the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green,icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however not transparent. We are in the north and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea. Where the gentle water taps the rocks there is still a surface skin of colour. the cloudless sky is very pale at the indigo horizon where it lightly pencils in with silver. Its blue gains word the zenith and vibrates there. But the sa looks cold, even the sun looks cold.

I had written the above, destined to be the opening paragraph of my memoirs when something happened which was so extraordinary and so horrible that I cannot bring myself to describe it even now after an interval of time and although a possible, though not totally reassuring explanation has occurred to me. Perhaps I shall feel calmer and more clear-headed after yet another interval.

Extract Three 

The departed, the gods,on he day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes. The rusted hulk of the freighter that had run aground at the far end of the bay longer ago than any of us could remember must have thought it was being granted a relaunch. I would not swim again, after that day. The seabirds mewled and swooped, unnerved, it seemed by the spectacle of that vast bowl of water bulging like a blister, lead blue and malignantly agleam. They looked unnaturally white, that day, those birds. The waves were depositing a fringe of soiled yellow foam along the waterline. No sail marred the high horizon. I would not swim, no, not ever again.

Someone has just walked over my grave.

Someone.

Extract Four

For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smiling and softly lit and undresses. Soraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe and slides into bed beside him. “Have you missed me?” she asks. “I miss you all the time,” he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; he stretches her out, kisses her breasts; they make love.

Soraya is tall and slim with long black hair and dark, liquid eyes. Technically he is old enough to be here father; but then technically one can be a father at twelve. He has been on her books for over a year; he finds her entirely satisfactory. In the desert of the week Thursday has become an oasis of luxe et volupté.

Extract Five

All day the colours had been those of dusk,mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.

Sai, sitting on the veranda, was reading an article about giant squid in an old National Geographic. Every now and then she looked up at Kanchenjunga, observed its wizard phosphorescence with a shiver. The judge sat at the far corner with his chessboard, playing against himself. Stuffed under his char where she felt safe was Mutt the dog, snoring gently in her sleep. A single bald lightbulb dangled on a wire above. It was cold. but inside the house, it was still colder, the dark, the freeze, contained by stone walls several feet deep.

 

Footnote

If you’re interested in the discussions around Nicole Griffith’s analysis, take a look at a post on Whispering Gum’s blog site via this link or the article in the The Guardian here.  

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

In deck-chairs all along the front the bald pink knees of Bradford businessmen nudged the sun.

The opening of Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road,  beautifully captures a moment of normality at a time in British history that was anything but normal. We’re in the summer of 1981. War has been raging across the Channel for almost four years, millions of men killed or wounded and thousands more traumatised by their experience. Yet on the sands at a resort somewhere along the English coast,  life goes on as usual; children whine about sand chaffing their skin and overweight middle aged couples gather their belongings ready for the trek back to their boarding house evening meal.

Observing them is Billy Prior, a soldier sent home from the front with shellshock so severe it rendered him mute.  Treatment at  Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland under the guidance of psychologist William Rivers has got him to a state where, if not fully recovered. he is given the OK to return to active service.  First he takes a short holiday at the seaside, pays a visits to his finance and engages in as much casual sex as he can manage with whoever happens to be available.

On the strength of the opening chapters of this book I thought (mistakenly as it turned out) that I was in for a reading experience just as good as the first two novels in Pat Barker’s  Regeneration Trilogy. The Ghost Road reconnects us with some of the characters from the two previous novels in that trilogy, in particular Billy Prior and William Rivers. There are fleeting appearances by Wilfred Owen but this mainly happens towards the end of the novel.

The Ghost RoadWhile Prior makes his farewell, Rivers is continuing his experimental treatment of soldiers suffering post traumatic disorder and contending with the morality of gluing men together again just so they can be sent back to the line and almost certain death.

The narrative switches between these two men using a melee of techniques, from letters to the diary Prior writes in abandoned farm houses and dug outs and the influenza-induced dreams which take Rivers back to the time he worked with native people in Melanesia, Oceania. These memories are a device to draw attention to the irony that the society that sends their young men into scenes of carnage is the same one that bars the Melanesians from their tradition of headhunting on the grounds the practice is barbarous.

This was the aspect of the novel that didn’t work for me. Barker signposts her ‘political’ points rather too obviously. Rivers we’re told for example experiences “flashes of cross-cultural recognition”  while the episodes of death and burial rituals were too long and belaboured. More than once I found myself checking out, longing to get through these interludes so I could return to the way more interesting experiences of Billy and his troop companions in France.

The final scenes of the novel are powerful evocations of the sense of utter meaningless and futility that found its way into so many of the poems by the soldier poets. But it wasn’t enough for me to feel Ghost Road came anywhere close to the quality of Regeneration. I’m surprised it was the third part of the trilogy that won the Booker Prize rather than the first.

End Notes

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker was published in 1995, following on from Regeneration published in 1991 and The Eye in the Door, published in 1993. The Ghost Road won the 1995 Booker Prize in the face of competition from Salman Rushdie (The Moor’s Last Sigh); Tim Winton (The Riders); Justin Cartwright (In Every Face I Meet) and Barry Unsworth (Morality Play). My copy of The Ghost Road was published by Penguin Books.

5 Reasons to be cheerful

sundaysalonI’m often guilty of using this site to grumble so I thought I’d change tack and for share some positive news for once. Actually I have several things to feel cheerful about.

1. Awards. Justice at last for Jim Crace whose novel Harvest should have won the 2013 Booker Award because it was simply outstanding and far, far superior to the other shortlisted titles.  I was delighted to see this week’s announcement declaring this book the winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It’s a recognition that is long overdue. If you don’t know this novel, take a look at my review 

2. Acquisitions. Two of my library reservations came through yesterday. Just in time because I was on the final few pages of Ghost Road by Pat Barker which I didn’t enjoy particularly.  I now have The World of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson to look forward to opening tonight. This is the second book by her which features Thomas Hawkins, a young ne’er-do-well in seventeenth century England who somehow can’t help getting involved in events which threaten his life. Her debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea which I read just last month was so good I was delighted to find her follow up was just out.  The World of Thomas Hawkins is a sequel to The Devil in the Marshalsea but the publishers say it can also be read as a standalone historical mystery.

Here’s the blurb from the publishers Hodder & Stoughton:

Spring, 1728. A young, well-dressed man is dragged through the streets of London to the gallows at Tyburn. The crowds jeer and curse as he passes, calling him a murderer. He tries to remain calm. His name is Tom Hawkins and he is innocent. Somehow he has to prove it, before the rope squeezes the life out of him.

Doesn’t that just want to make you open the book immediately?? For me yes, but then I also collected another novel which I’ve had my eye on for some time. A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, is a novel about revenge and redemption, that was named this week as a winner of a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. The UK publishers Hodder & Stoughton describe it as:

Deep in the heart of history’s most infamous concentration camp, a man lies dreaming. His name is Shomer, and before the war he was a pulp fiction author. Now, to escape the brutal reality of life in Auschwitz, Shomer spends his nights imagining another world – a world where a disgraced former dictator now known only as Wolf ekes out a miserable existence as a low-rent PI in London’s grimiest streets.

The subject matter will not make this a comfortable read I’m sure but it’s such an interesting premise that I’m looking forward to getting stuck in soon.

3. Progress. Although I’ve weened myself off doing challenges for the last few years, I still have a few reading projects underway.  While I haven’t made any conscious effort to make progress on them it seems I’m further ahead than I would have expected. With the completion of The Ghost Road, I find I’ve read 25 of the 47 Booker Prize titles on my list so well over the half way stage. I’m also exactly half way through my Classics Club project with just over two and half years left to read the remaining 25 novels. And I’m bang on target with the TBR Challenge run by Roof Beam Reader which is the one and only ‘challenge’ I’m doing this year. Usually I’m moaning that I’m behind schedule with my reading so it makes it a pleasant surprise to be right where I want to be.

4. Unplanned reading. A couple of months ago I decided that if I wanted to preserve my sanity I needed to stop creating reading schedules. I was spending too much time fretting about the fact that if I didn’t read book X then I’d be behind with my world literature project and if I didn’t read book Y I’d be late in delivering a review of an ARC.  Reading stops being fun when you’re having to read a particular book or following a prescribed schedule. So instead I just adopted the behaviour of picking up whatever book was on the top of the two piles nearest to hand – one is my TBR challenge listed books and the other is a motley collection of classics and Booker prizes. And if I don’t fancy what my hand rests on, then I just scan the vast number of titles yet unread in the bookshelf.  Hassle free reading is much more delightful than scheduled reading.

5. Library news. Progress this week on the campaign in which I’m involved to save our local library. A High Court judge has ordered our local authority to respond to our complaint within one week. We’ll then have a further week to make our own responses before the judge will rule if there is a case that needs to be heard. So though we’re not yet claiming victory, it’s at least some positive news.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of PiYann Martel would be a good person to have on your side if you ever have to play one of those true/false party games. On the strength of his 2002 Booker prize winning novel Life of Pi, he would be able to spin a tale that would keep people guessing and keep a convincingly straight face in the telling.

All I knew about Yann Martel’s third novel Life of Pi before I opened it was that it involved a shipwreck and animals (an element in novels that usually has me shuddering) and relied upon magical realism (a style that doesn’t light my fire). To say therefore that I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of reading it, would be an understatement. But it was on my list of Booker novels yet to be experienced and I was about to take a trip on a boat so bizarrely thought the book’s setting made it an appropriate reading companion.

What a delightful surprise to find it was a huge shaggy dog story; one that borders on implausibility but never completely tips over the edge and leaves you with a big question mark at the end.

The novel tells the story of Pi Patel, a 16-year-old Indian boy who is shipwrecked in the Pacific. The sole human survivor, he has to share his lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a seasick Bengal tiger. It seems impossible that he can survive but Pi is a resourceful and determined boy: “I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day.”

Martel cleverly makes this a plausible scenario by establishing Pi’s character well before we get to the shipwreck. For the first hundred pages of the book we’re introduced to Pi and his zookeeping family, the origin of his odd name (he was initially named Piscine to reflect his grandfather’s love of  swimming pools but shortened it to the mathematical symbol Pi to stop school mates calling him  “pissing” ); and his early conversion to three faiths. We learn a lot about animal behaviour, the hierarchy between different species and the predator-prey relationships which will become part of Pi’s survival tactics while at sea.  He has to recreate within the confines of the boat, the atmosphere and rituals of the zoo,  convincing the tiger that he is the master by marking out his territory with urine and fierce stares and alternating punishments with treats.  The relationship begins as one of  control and the exertion of authority but shifts to one of interdependency and ultimately to love and respect as Pi comes to view the tiger not as an enemy but as a companion that he cherishes and whose continued presence is necessary to his survival.

Martel’s novel can be read purely as an adventure story, one that is well seasoned with the typical elements of storms and emergencies, of the ship that doesn’t spot the boat, of the ingenuity required to find food, collect and purify water and to shelter from the fierce sun or torrential rain.

However, there is much more to the novel than pure adventure. Ultimately this is a story about identity and faith. During Pi’s 227 days at sea he undergoes a radical change in his nature, abandoning his vegetarian habits in favour of eating raw fish and turtle, gaining confidence enough to tame the tiger and adopting some of the behaviours of an animal.  The previously devout disciple of three religions grapples with his faith in God before concluding that it is his faith not his reason that enables him to survive.

I was alone and orphaned in the middle of the Pacific hanging onto an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me. Had I considered my prospects in the light of reason, I surely would have given up and let go of the oar, hoping that I might drown before being eaten.

Pi’s refusal to consider his predicament “in the light of reason” enables his faith to flourish, and ultimately to  help him overcome his fear.

The novel also explores a very different meaning of faith by testing our ability as readers to believe what seems unbelievable, to suspend our disbelief.  It would be astonishing enough that a young boy could survive 227 at sea alone, that he does so in the confined space of a lifeboat occupied by a tiger and then is beached at floating island of carnivorous algae stretches at the borders of credulity. Martel plays on this at the very end of the novel where Pi, having been rescued, is interviewed by investigators who want to determine what caused the ship to sink. They refuse to believe his story, so Pi offers them an alternative version “…that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. ” And having done so, offers them a choice of which is the better story, pointing out that neither can be proven. Their choice is thus not based on reason, but on belief.

It was this ending that sealed my view that Life of Pi is an extraordinary novel. Concluding a novel in a way that leaves readers to make their own decision between reason and faith was audacious. I instantly forgave Martel for all the times he had strayed into details about how to drink the blood of turtles or to catch flying fish. And I immediately turned to page 1 and read the opening all over again.

 

End notes

Life of Pi was the dark horse choice for the 2002 Man Booker award given the competition included Carol Shields, Tim Winton and Rohinton Mistry. Not everyone was as fulsome in praising it as the Booker judges. The Daily Telegraph praised it as being ” full of clever tricks, amusing asides and grand originality” but felt overall that “it never really comes alive in the emotional sense”. Critics in the USA were more positive however. Publishers Weekly said it was  “a fabulous romp through an imagination by turns ecstatic, cunning, despairing and resilient.” The New York Times concluded it “could renew your faith in the ability of novelists to invest even the most outrageous scenario with plausible life.”

Something I learned while doing some research on Martel is that between 2007 and 2011 he sent the Canadian prime minister a book with an accompanying explanatory note. In total he sent 100 notes. All the selections and correspondence were turned into a book What is Stephen Harper Reading? 

Two foodie novels in review

The Dinner Herman KochHerman Koch’s The Dinner was one of the publishing hits of 2012, garnering wildly differing views on whether it was an extremely well executed novel about the lengths to which parents will go to protect their offspring or a nasty book about some very dislikable people.  I enjoyed it on the whole though wasn’t convinced by the narrator Paul, a failed teacher who despises his more successful politician and celebrity brother Serge.

The two men and their wives meet in an upmarket restaurant in Amsterdam. Amid the They are there to discuss an act of unprovoked violence committed by their teenage sons. Koch reveals the nature of the boys’ attack in between scenes where a servile waiter describes the provenance of each item of food in infinite detail. It’s an evident swipe at overly pretentious restaurants.  The lamb’s-neck sweetbread might have been marinated in Sardinian olive oil and the sun-dried tomatoes raised in Bulgaria but there still isn’t very much to eat.

The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but there are voids and then there are voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle. It was as though the empty plate was challenging you to say something about it, to go to the open kitchen and demand an explanation. ‘You wouldn’t even dare!’ the plate said, and laughed in your face.

Paul is clearly a man with a chip on his shoulder. He despises everything his brother and sister in law represent.

They belonged to that class of Dutch people who think everything French is ‘great’: from croissants to French bread with Camembert, from French cars (they themselves drove one of the top-end Peugeots) to French chansons and French films.”

But the reason for this deep resentment towards his brother was never fully explained. Is it purely a case of envy at the celebrity status his brother has acquired as the front runner in the upcoming national elections? Or is this another example of how Koch has structured his novel around secrets and the necessity of keeping them just that: secret.

the presidents hat

Surprisingly for a novel about a hat with supposed magical properties, the plot of The President’s Hat  by Antoine Laurain similarly turns on a meal.

Middle-ranking officer worker Daniel Mercier decides to take advantage of his wife’s absence one evening to treat himself to dinner in an elegant Parisienne brasserie. While savouring a seafood platter and crisp Pouilly-Fuissé, (and trying to ignore the price), he is astounded when the banquette alongside him is occupied by President Mitterand. Mercier lingers over his meal, eavesdropping on Mitterand’s conversation with his cohorts. When the President leaves, he has forgotten his hat. It ends up gracing the head of the starry-eyed Mercier.

He quickly discovers that the hat confers authority and confidence. His superiors discover his full potential and give him promotion. But Mercier loses the hat. The next person to find it similarly realises that its possession emboldens her to make a big change in her life.  The hat passes through a succession of hands, acquiring talismanic qualities as the fortunes of each of its new owners are transformed.

This was an impulse buy and while I enjoyed the descriptions of the brasserie and Daniel’s repast, overall I found it far too light and frothy. I suppose it was meant to be a fable of a time that no longer exists – one where no-one goes out for dinner and spends all their time texting ‘friends’ or drinks a full bottle of wine and then drives home.

End Notes

The Dinner by Herman Koch is published in the UK by Atlantic Books. Koch is a Dutch author who has also worked as a television actor and newspaper columnist.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain is published by Gallic Books. Laurain was born in Paris where he has worked as a journalist and indulged his passion for collecting antiques. His next novel is due to be published later in 2015.

 

In a poet’s footsteps

This weekend I finally got to visit the visit of Laugharne in West Wales where my fellow countryman Dylan Thomas lived in the final three years of his life. I’m almost ashamed to admit that even though this village is only 90 minutes drive from my home, I’ve never made the pilgrimage. A birthday treat courtesy of Mr BookerTalk rectified that omission.

We got to look around  the riverside house where he lived with his wife Caitlin/

Dylan Thomas last house at Laugharne, Camarthenshire

Dylan Thomas last house at Laugharne, Camarthenshire

It looks cosy but in reality was rather damp apparently. Still it had the advantage of occupying a spot on the estuary with some wonderful views from the windows and the garden. We sat and watched clouds scudding across the sky, creating constantly changing  patterns of light and shadow on the sand and reflecting back in sparkling drops of water.  For a few seconds all sound seemed to be suspended.

View from Dylan Thomas home on the estuary at Laugharne,

View from Dylan Thomas home on the estuary at Laugharne,

The small exhibition about his life and the audio recording of Thomas reading some of his poems made the visit special. But an equally memorable part of our visit was the chance we had to peek inside the small garage just along the lane where he actually did his writing. It’s been renovated and restored to give a glimpse of the rather chaotic conditions in which he composed Under Milk Wood. Sweet wrappers lie scrumpled on the desk, sheets of paper are scattered along the floor and on the back of the chair hangs a rather scruffy jacket as if Thomas had just popped out for one of his legendary drinking sessions in Browns Hotel and would be back soon.

Since this was a birthday treat, it was entirely appropriate that we trod in Thomas’ footsteps along The Birthday Walk – a path threading through trees and undergrowth along the estuary, that Thomas took on his 35th birthday.

Dylan Thomas' writing shed at Laugharne

Dylan Thomas’ writing shed at Laugharne

The writing shed at Laugharne, where Under Milk Wood was created

The writing shed at Laugharne, where Under Milk Wood was created

In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea
Where the cormorants scud,
In his house on stilts high among beaks
And palavers of birds
This sandgrain day in the bent bay’s grave
He celebrates and spurns
His driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age;
Herons spire and spear.

Under and round him go
Flounders, gulls, on their cold, dying trails,
Doing what they are told,
Curlews aloud in the congered waves
Work at their ways to death,
And the rhymer in the long tongued room,
Who tolls his birthday bell,
Toesl towards the ambush of his wounds;
Herons, stepple stemmed, bless.