On Introductions

Book introductionsWhile catching up on back issues of The Paris Review recently, I came across an article which at first glance I thought was advocating a rather strange way of reading books.

Elisa Gabbert, a poet and writer, said that “reading the introductions to great books …” was one of the great pleasures in her life. Nothing remarkable about that; plenty of readers can agree with that sentiment. It was the next phrase in her sentence that got my attention for she went on to say “.. and not the books themselves.”  That seemed a bizarre idea. An introduction is surely not meant to stand alone but to provide a form of gateway to the text itself. So why would you stop at the gate and not want to enter?

For Gabbert however, the fascination with introductions is the way they often contain grand claims of a philosophical nature; theories or big ideas the meaning of which  might, or might not, be clear but which she enjoys just because they exist. It’s a love affair that extends beyond the introduction into all kinds of material found at the front of books; from translator’s notes (she’s thrilled by the linguistic trivia and gossip they contain) and epigraphs. It’s a pleasure that apparently began with a Chinese classic text called Tao Te Ching which she has yet to complete yet she’s read the introduction to a 1989 edition several times and heavily underlined key passages.

I confess that I’ve read only the introduction to many books but they’ve always been  business-related titles. Usually it was on occasions when the book was required reading prior to yet another strategic review (Who Moved my Cheese, The Innovators’ Dilemma spring to mind here). Getting on a transatlantic flight once I was bemused to look across the rows of seats to find a number of my colleagues all desperately trying to read enough of Jim Collins’ Good to Great to be able to look intelligent when the subject came up at the forthcoming leadership pow wow. Every one of us admitted later that we’d got no further than chapter 2 and skimmed the rest…..

But if there was a non fiction book I was really keen to read, I can’t imagine reading only  the introduction. Wouldn’t that feel like going out for dinner but stopping at the appetiser? Even if the introduction didn’t give me the feeling this is a book I would understand, appreciate or even enjoy, I’d still want to read a little of it before making up my mind.

I was relieved however that Gabbert takes a different approach when it comes to fiction. For her, introductions to classic novels are so “notoriously full of spoilers” that she tends to avoid them though admits that sometimes the preface content does provide some gems of information (one novel she mentions began with a story involving Dostoevsky and a last minute reprieve as he stood before a firing squad.)

My own approach is rather haphazard. Before plunging into the meat of any new ‘classic’ I’ll scan some of the front matter. If I know nothing about the author I’ll read the biographical information and any notes which give me an idea of the period and the context in which the novel was written or explain the author’s influence on later writers. If the author has written a foreword I’ll read that also because it gives me an insight into what they were trying to achieve with their book. Some nuggets of gold lie within these sections — my edition of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell for example explained how the novel’s title was changed under pressure from Charles Dickens, a change that significantly shifted the emphasis of the book away from a story of individual growth and towards social criticism. In my edition of Trollope’s Dr Thorne I found an apology from the author to his readers for the fact the novel begins with “two long dull chapters full of description”.   

The one type of front material I try hard to avoid at this stage is anything which suggests it will delve into the themes of the book or characterisation. because I don’t want to be influenced in how to read the text — I much prefer to make up my own mind.

But when I’ve got to the end of the text, then I’ll go back to the beginning and read the foreword and introductions. Over the years I’ve found Oxford World Classics and Penguin Classics editions the best at providing thoughtful analysis of the novel, particularly when they’re written by a leading academic. Often the emphasis will reflect the academic’s own field of interest. Reading an old copy of Jane Eyre I found an article by David Lodge about the significance of fire and ice in the novel (it was a shortened version of what is considered a landmark interpretation).  In a later copy I found the introduction was more focused on the novel’s underlying theme of colonialism. Neither of these would have made much sense if I’d read them before reading the novel itself, but reading them afterwards enhanced the whole experience.

It seems my interest in this front material isn’t shared universally. I discovered during a tutorial for an Open University course I was pursuing a few years ago, that no-one else had even looked at the content that came before chapter 1. For them it was just a distraction, or of questionable value. I tried hard to persuade them otherwise though not sure if I ever succeeded.

You can find Elisa Gabbert’s article in the Paris Review blog here.

 

 

 

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

Human FactorThe Human Factor is a novel about a very ordinary, almost nondescript, man who makes his living in the shady world of espionage.  It’s not your typical spy novel however. Clandestine meetings, secret messages and code names are not much in evidence; nor is the plot of the usual fiendishly complex kind and there’s a distinct absence of high octave action scenes. What we get instead is a more thoughtful novel about loyalty and betrayal.

In his 1980 autobiography Ways of Escape, Graham Greene said his intent was to show to people who were more used to reading about the antics of James Bond, that there was an unromantic side to the world of intelligence .

I wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pensions, the background much like that of any other profession — whether the bank clerk or the business director — an undangerous routine, and within each character the more important private life.

And so he makes his central character a 62-year-old man who shuffles each day between his detached house in the market town of Berkhamstead and his small office in London. Maurice Castle is an officer in the Eastern and Southern Africa section of MI6 which might sound exciting but actually comes across as rather dull. It essentially involves reading and responding to the daily ‘bag’ of reports sent by various British overseas outposts. Castle is a man who likes his routine: a few inconsequential pleasantries with his assistant Davis; lunch at the same pub at the same time each day, a heavyweight novel to read on his commute home; a glass or two of J&B whisky each evening.  

Castle’s suburban life is not however as pedestrian as it seems. His wife Sarah is a black South African woman he met during his tour of duty in that country. Their son is not his though they keep up a pretence to the contrary. Castle drinks because he has a secret life as a double agent who passes on information to the Russians. It was the price he paid in return for help from a Marxist to get Sarah smuggled out of South Africa when their relationship fell foul of the South Afrian authorities. By the way, I’m not spoiling the novel by revealing this since it’s heavily signalled within the first few chapters.

Castle’s hopes of a quiet and uneventful life in the few remaining years before retirement are disrupted when suspicions begin of a leak in MI6. The head of security makes discreet inquiries; the signs point at Davis who is quickly despatched with the aid of mouldy nuts (they cause liver failure apparently). Castle of course knows the ‘evidence’ against Davis is spurious. The finger of suspicion is certain to turn in his own direction eventually but he may have time for one final act of betrayal; telling his Russian handlers about Project Remus, an alliance with America and Germany to deal with black unrest in South Africa. If he burns that bridge, there is no course open to him but to escape from England. But where will that leave Sarah and Sam?

Questions of loyalty, morality and conscience form the heart of The Human Factor.  Castle became a traitor not as a result of deeply held political convictions but out of a sense of gratitude to a former colleague, the communist who smuggled Sarah out of South Africa. Now he is forced to re-examine his motives and his loyalties. The death of Davis makes him suspicious about the morality of the institution for which he works. Project Remus makes him question whether the security service is more of a danger than the people it is supposedly fighting.

Greene is a master when it comes to portraying people confronting a moral dilemma but the character of Castle is not one of his finest. He comes across as a naive figure who thinks if his Russian controllers manage to get him out of England, that the British authorities will let his wife join him in Moscow. And yet he tells Sarah “As long as we are alive we’ll come together again. Somehow. Somewhere.” Hm, sounds like wishful thinking to me…

Castle is a sad figure but too distant a figure to fully engage our sympathy. Although we can appreciate his anxiety that the life he has enjoyed with his family is about to end, there wasn’t the depth of psychological analysis I’ve enjoyed in Greene’s earlier novels like Heart of the Matter and End of the Affair. There was one habit of Castle that did make me warm towards him a little: he reads the classics and is a frequent visitor to a delightful sounding bookshop in Soho where, during the course of the novel, he buys novels by Samuel Richardson, Anthony Trollope and Tolstoy.

It was an unusual respectable bookshop for this area of Soho, quite unlike the bookshop which faced it across the street and bore the simple sign ‘Books’ in scarlet letters. The window below the scarlet sign displayed girlie magazines which nobody was ever seen to buy — they were like a signal in an easy code long broken; they indicated the nature of private wares and interests inside. But the shop of Halliday & Son confronted the scarlet ‘Books’ with a window full of Penguins and Everyman and second-hand copies of World’s Classics.

Sadly as the novel progresses, I learned that he is not actually reading these books; just using them for codes to arrange information drops and meetings with his handler.

More interesting than Castle as a character is Colonel Daintry, an MI6 security officer faced with the task of tracking down the source of the leak. Greene shows us a painfully lonely man who is so out of touch with normal life that he’s never heard of Maltesers and doesn’t realise they wouldn’t be the appropriate gift to take for a weekend country house party. Daintry is separated from his wife, is barely in contact with his daughter, few interests outside of work and no social life. When his daughter announces her forthcoming marriage, Daintry is so devoid of friends that he resorts to inviting Castle to accompany him. Daintry is fundamentally an honest man who despite all his years in the service, still doesn’t understand how to play the system. One exchange with his senior officer, the new commander of the service, reveals the extent of his isolation:

I wish I were a chess player. Do you play chess, Daintry?’

‘No, bridge is my game.’

‘The Russians don’t play bridge, or so I understand.’

‘Is that important?’

‘We are playing games, Daintry, games, all of us. It’s important not to take a game too seriously or we may lose it. We have to keep flexible, but it’s important, naturally, to play the same game.’

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Daintry said, ‘I don’t understand what you are talking about.’

Davis’ death horrifies him. He knows the man was killed because it would avoid further embarrasment for a service already discomforted by Philby and co. He knows too that there was but flimsy and circumstantial evidence the man was a traitor. The incident brings him to resign his post despite knowing it means  “he would exchange one loneliness for another.”  In some ways Daintry reminded me of the butler Stephens in The Remains of the Day, a man who has learned to button up his emotions for so long that he cannot admit them even to himself.

The British intelligence service isn’t shown in a very good light in this novel. They’re frankly rather inept at discovering the traitor in their midst. With only two suspects they pick the wrong man because he drinks more than he should, takes reports out of the office to read over lunch and supposedly has a clandestine meeting at the zoo (it’s with his secretary rather than a handler). The service commander takes a very relaxed view of the affair, leaving the details to his underlings so he can continue to enjoy the quiet of his country estate. It stretches our credulity but then Greene wrote this novel with the benefit of his own years of service within MI6 so there is clearly a basis of truth.

The Human Factor isn’t one of Greene’s finest works but it’s well worth reading nevertheless.

Footnotes

About the book: The Human Factor is one of Graham Greene’s later novels, first published in 1978 when the author was 74 years old.

Why I read this book: I’ve read most of the novels considered to be his best output (the so-called Catholic novels like Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory and, my favourite The Heart of the Matter). I like Greene’s writing style so thought I’d make my way through his lesser known work. The Human Factor is one of the books on my Classics Club list.

Six degrees from chocolate to famine

It’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, a meme where a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

This month’s chain begins with a book I have never heard of let alone read. It’s Like Water for Chocolate, a debut work by the Mexican author Laura Esquivel. Apparently the central character grows up to be a master chef, using cooking to express herself and sharing recipes with readers.

The obvious choice for chocolate lovers like myself would be to the best selling novel Chocolat by Joanne Harris. But I think for my first link I’ll use the location where chefs work rather than the ingredients they use.

In 1929, an aspiring author by the name of Eric Blair arrived in Paris. Whether out of necessity because he had his money stolen, or because he wanted to gather material for a book, he began working as a dishwasher in some of the city’s restaurants. The result was  Down and Out in Paris and London, the first full-length work by an author better known as George Orwell.

Paris of course likes to think of itself as the gourmet capital of the world. The recently-published Michelin guide lists 10 restaurants in the city awarded the coveted 3 stars        (remarkably however this achievement is outdone by Tokyo with twelve 3-star restaurants).  Gourmet restaurants attract gourmands which gives me my next book in the chain.

The GourmetThe Gourmet by Muriel Barbery features Pierre Arthens, the greatest food critic in France. In the final two days of his life he wants to track down the most delicious food he has ever eaten. It’s a flavour he recalls from the years before he was critic though he is not exactly sure if it came from his childhood or his adolescent years. As he digs into his memory, he remembers all the dishes he has relished over the years, like this ” Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit … ”

Before I stopped eating meat I was quite partial to duck though I don’t find the combination of fowl and grapefruit very appealing. But then I’m not a gourmand.

The Sea, The SeaAll those descriptions of food do however remind me of another character who thinks he has a refined palette. So for my next link let’s leave France behind and move to the English coast to catch up with Charles Arrowby, the central character in Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize winning novel The Sea, The Sea. Charles, who considers he has had a highly successful career as a London stage director, retires to a bit of a tumbledown seaside cottage to write his memoirs. In between writing and swimming, he prepares his own meals, some of which sound frankly bizarre.

For lunch, I may say, I ate and greatly enjoyed the following: anchovy paste on hot buttered toast, then baked beans and kidney beans with chopped celery, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. (Really good olive oil i essential, the kind with a taste, I have brought a supply from London)

I could manage the anchovy paste on toast quite easily but baked beans and kidney beans on the same plate would be a step too far. I’m beginning to think duck and grapefruit wouldn’t be so bad after all….

Charles thinks he is irresistable to women but the protagonist in the novel for my next link would certainly not be one happy to share his lunch table and it’s nothing to do with his after shave.

AtwoodMarian McAlpin, the protagonist of The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood, has a problem with food. Meat revolts her but so do eggs, carrots and even rice puddings. Soon she is existing on little other than salad leaves.  Her revulsion with food is symbolic of her rejection of the kind of behaviour expected of her as a woman. On the eve of her marriage she struggles against the idea that her change of status will mean she can no longer be herself. Atwood’s first novel was considered a landmark when it was published in 1969 because of its themes about gender stereotyping and objectification of women.

the vegetarian-1Fast forward some forty years and we find in my next link another author using women’s relationship with food to tackle the same issue.  The Vegetarian by Han Kang was one of the most extraordinary and disturbing books I’ve read in many years.   Yeong-hye is a docile, obedient South Korean wife until the day she decides to stop eating meat. In the eyes of her husband and family this is an act of gross rebellion against their culture so they try to force her to eat. It doesn’t work. She stops eating all together in the belief she is a tree and hence needs sustenance only from the earth.

The starvation both Yeong-hye and Marian McAlpine experience is the product of mental disturbance but for the protagonist in my next, and final link, starvation is thrust upon her by a force over which she has no control.

whitehunger_web_0_220_330

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen takes a real life event in his native Finland, a devastating famine in 1867 that resulted from a series of poor harvests. The food shortage co-incided with a particularly harsh winter. In desperation Marja, a peasant farmer’s wife from the north, abandons her dying husband and sets off on foot through waist-high snow with her two young children. They trudge from village to village, sometimes supported by strangers but just as often turned away and denied even a morsel of bread. It’s a bleak book, and not just because of the many descriptions of the barren, inhospitable landscape, but because of what it says about human nature when faced on the doorstep with suffering.

It’s a sombre note on which to end this chain …

 

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor [Book Review]

reservoir 13Of all the books long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker prize, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor was the one I most wanted to read.  Having done so I’m at a loss to understand why the Booker judges failed to select this for the shortlist. Not for the first time it seems the judges’ idea of what makes an outstanding novel is a mile apart from my own thinking.

Reservoir 13 is quite simply an extraordinary novel. It gives an innovative twist to the device of a missing girl; has a meticulously plotted structure and a mesmeric poetic style of writing.

The springboard is the disappearance of 13 year old Rebecca Shaw from the holiday cottage in England’s Peak District where she is spending New Year’s Eve with her parents. Initially it seems the novel is treading a familiar path; one which traces the ensuing search, the grief of the girl’s family and the shock of the community before the revelation of what happened to Rebecca.  So we get police helicopters buzzing overhead, villagers turning out to sweep the frozen moors and divers trawling through the reservoirs. It’s all in vain. Rebecca Shaw is nowhere to be found. Not that day or in the following weeks, months and even years. McGregor keeps alive the possibility that she may be found however; tantalising us with the discovery of a navy-blue body-warmer identical to the one Rebecca wore the night she disappeared; several mentions of disused lead mines and characters who have secrets they would prefer lay undiscovered.

McGregor’s stroke of ingenuity is to make us think this is all adding up to be a murder mystery/crime kind of novel, while all the time writing an entirely different of book. What Reservoir 13 is about is essentially the ebb and flow of life in a rural community showing how, despite a human tragedy, life does go on.  Cows are milked, crops planted and harvested, tea rooms opened, kilns fired. Babies are born; children grow up and experiment with drugs and sex; people fall in and out of love; some fall sick; others die. Some villagers leave, others return. In the immediate aftermath of Rebecca’s disappearance, the villagers scale back on some of their time-honoured traditions and festivities as a mark of respect for her family. But as the years pass and still she is not found, they make a return appearance on the calendar: the charity dance in spring, well dressing in mid summer; the cricket match against the neigbouring village; harvest festival; the winter pantomime and fireworks at New Year

McGregor follows the daily lives of a large set of villagers, watching them deal with small and not-so-small sorrows and disappointments over the course of 13 years. Child pornography; depression; marital discord; examination failures and successes; all human life is recorded in this novel. There’s Irene who puts on a brave face even when her special needs son becomes violent; Jackson the farmer, who rules his sons’ lives from his sick bed and Jones the school caretaker whose protective attitude towards his boilerhouse is suspicious. None of these villagers dominate the novel; there is in fact no central character. Often all we get is a fleeting glimpse of their lives, a single sentence or a short conversation alone signalling their attitudes, their vulnerabilities and how their lives are changing. It’s a style that calls for careful reading — blink and you can easily miss some essential detail.

The cycle of human life is echoed in the rhythms of the natural world — the flowering of trees and wild plants, mating and hibernation of wildlife and weather conditions marking the changing of the seasons.

The swallows returned in numbers, and could be seen flying in and out of the open doors at the lambing shed at the Jacksons’ and the cowsheds over at Thompson’s, and the outbuildings up at the Hunter’s land. … There was rain and the river was high and the hawthorn by the lower meadows came out foaming white. The cow parsley was thick along the footpaths and the shade deepened under the trees.

Through meticulous layering of details and repetition Reservoir 13 marks the turning of the years. Every chapter, each of which takes us one year on, begins in the same way: a sentence noting the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Yet with a few small changes McGregor shows how life is changing for this community.

Chapter 2, which marks the first anniversary of Rebecca’s disappearance begins

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but they were too far off for the sound to carry to the few who’d come out to watch.

By year 4, the villagers are in more of a celebration mood:

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks on the television in the pub and dancing in the street outside.

Almost a decade later however, after New Year’s Eve is marked by arson attacks at a caravan and the allotments, the villagers are more cautious about their celebrations:

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks going up from the towns beyond the valley but no one in the village even lifted their heads to look.

McGregor’s prose is rhythmic and measured, seeming simple on the surface yet with such precision and detail that you feel immersed in the life of this community and drawn towards its inhabitants. It’s the kind of writing that can easily sweep you along. I forced myself to slow down, reading just one chapter a night so I could savour it more fully.

Even while absorbed in their own lives, the village can never completely forget what happened on that one night so many years ago. Periodically McGregor reminds us of the girl’s disappearance, even in the final chapter some 13 years after her disappearance we are told:

The missing girl had not yet been forgotten. The girl’s name was Rebecca or Becky or Beks. She had been looked for everywhere. … It was no good.

This is in short a wonderful novel. The best I have read this year.

It seems I am not alone in my enthusiasm for this book. Take a look at reviews by Lisa at ANZlitlovers, Susan at A Life in Books and Paul at MookesandGripes.

Footnotes

About the book: Reservoir 13 was published in 2017 by 4th Estate, an imprint of Harper Collins. My version is in hardback and was borrowed from my local library.

About the author: Jon McGregor is the author of four novels and a story collection. He is the winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he edits the Letters Page, a literary journal in letters. He was born in Bermuda in 1976, grew up in Norfolk, and now lives in Nottingham, England.

 

October 2017 Snapshot

October snapshot (1)Let’s get the good news out of the way first. Last month you may remember I said that, because I’d broken my upper humerus, I had limited movement in my arm. Good progress has been made in the past month and I no longer walk like a penguin. I can do pretty much most domestic and social activities unaided now, including drive my car. Freedom at last!!! I even managed a three hour baking class last week where we were throwing around a heavy batch of bread dough (I did it left handed just to be on the safe side).

Apart from trying to coax my damaged wing back into health, what else was I up to on October 1, 2017?

 Reading now

Vernon_god_little I’m not one of those people who makes a habit of simultaneously reading multiple books. Two I can manage providing they are in vastly different genres (a crime novel say and a more literary novel, or a novel and a short story collection) but unusually I have three books on the go at the moment.

The first is my 44th Booker Prize winner – Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre which won the prize in 2003.  This is not one I was looking forward to read and it seems I am not alone. Although some reviewers thought it highly comic, others hated it and didn’t feel it deserved to win the prize. It’s set in a town in Texas in the aftermath of a mass shooting of students at the local school. One student, Vernon Little, is taken in for questioning and gets caught up in the legal and media circus. I’ve not yet read far enough to judge whether this will be one I enjoy but it certainly has a unique style.

By contrast on my e-reader is a psychological story that became a cinema classic when it was adapted  by Alfred Hitchcock with the leading roles taken by James Stewart and Kim Novak. The film was Vertigo and the book was D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It was published in English as The Living and the Dead in 1956 and now re-issued under the new Pushkin Vertigo imprint. Apart from re-locating the action from Paris to San Francisco, Hitchcock seems to have stayed fairly close to the original story of a former detective asked to help an old schoolfriend who is concerned about the increasingly strange behaviour of his wife.  Interest in his quarry becomes a dangerous obsession however.

My third book is a re-read. It’s a novella which has become a stable of the school syllabus in the UK for 14-16 year olds. I’d never read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck until four years ago when it was chosen by the book club I belonged to at the time but loved it (my review is here). Now I’m re-reading it to help coach a young girl in my village who is being bullied at school so studying on her own until a solution can be found.

Reflecting on the state of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books.  I’m holding steady to last month’s total at 274. I bought just one book in September:  The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) by Emile Zola published in 1883 as part of his Rougon-Macquart cycle. This one focuses on the world of the department store, a form of retail outlet that is very familiar to us today but was an innovative concept in the mid-nineteenth century. Until then, shoppers had to visit separate establishments for different items but with  Le Bon Marché (the model for Zola’s store) they could find all their purchases under one roof. The book was adapted by the BBC for a costume-drama series The Paradise broadcast in 2012 and 2013.

Thinking of reading next…

I don’t know what I’ll be reading later in the month other than one of the remaining six Booker prize titles from my list. It’s a long time since I read any of the Louise Penny novels I bought on my last trip to the USA ( I much preferred the covers of the US editions to the British ones) so a return to her fictitious village of Three Pines could be on the cards. I also found a little collection of Penelope Lively books when I was hunting through the shelves recently and its ages since I read anything by her. As always there are too many choices!

Watching:  I read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time at the time it was published which is now about 30 years ago and went on to read and enjoy many more of his novels (his early output is, with the exception of the magnificent Atonement, superior to his more recent work.). The recent BBC adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch was a reminder of just how powerful a study of loss and grief The Child in Time is and of McEwan’s versatility as an author.

Required viewing in our house at the moment is The Great British Bake Off.  I’m frustrated by the intrusions of the commercial breaks but other than that the series hasn’t seemed to have suffer much by it’s move away from the BBC ( I never did like the Mel and Sue double act). There’s a new series of The Apprentice starting I think this week – this is a show that is probably on its last legs. The last few series they seem to have scraped the barrel and found the most inane and useless candidates possible. They talk a lot about how great they are but I wouldn’t let them anywhere near any business of mine. It’s good for a laugh though.

And that is it for this month. I hope by this time next month the arm will be back in operation again. Until then, happy reading everyone.

National Poetry Day: Speaking up for justice

Original illustration from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK  in honour of which I thought I’d share two poems by one of my favourite poets: William Blake. One of the aspects of his work I love is his ability to use poetry to shine a light on the injustices he saw around him, of which there were many.

The Chimney Sweeper

When my mother died I was very young,

And my father sold me while yet my tongue

Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”

So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.

 

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head

That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,

“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,

You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

 

And so he was quiet, & that very night,

As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!

That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,

Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

 

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,

And he opened the coffins & set them all free;

Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,

And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

 

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,

They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.

And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,

He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

 

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark

And got with our bags & our brushes to work.

Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;

So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm.

Blake is of course highlighting the appalling practice of child labour that was so prevalent in the late 18th and 19th centuries where, as young as four or give, boys were set to clean chimneys which they could more easily negotiate because of their small size. This poem always suggests to me a court case where the child sweeper is giving evidence in the witness box and calling on the jury to do their duty by him and his fellow sweeps.

Another, equally dark poem is London where Blake points an accusing finger at every aspect of British society for the pain and suffering he sees about him as he walks the streets. There isn’t a lot of hope in this poem – rapid urbanisation means children are no longer free to enjoy childhood and people’s physical freedom is restricted by charters. Where Blake was taking a risk, bearing in mind this was written as the French Revolution was in full swing,  was in the image of the walls of the palace streaming with blood. A warning perhaps to the British monarchy that they too could face the same fate as their counterparts across the Channel?

London 

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

 

How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls,

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls

 

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlots curse

Blasts the new-born Infants tear

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

 

History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey [Bookerprize]

NedKellyUntil I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, I knew only three things about its protagonist Ned Kelly:

  1. He was an outlaw in Australia
  2. He was hanged for his crimes
  3. In his final shootout he wore a helmet made from iron with slits for his eyes

Carey’s novel takes us way beyond those headline facts and into the mind of the man whose first encounter with the law happened when he was just thirteen years old and he was charged with the assault and robbery of a Chinese pig and fowl trader. By the time Ned Kelly was 25 he had progressed to cattle thieving, bank robberies and murder.  How this child of a dirt-poor Irish immigrant family became one of the most wanted men in Australia and the stuff of legends is the premise of True History of the Kelly Gang.

Based partly on historical documents including the Jerilderie Letter written by Kelly to a fellow outlaw,  the novel begins with a 12-year-old boy forced to grow up quickly when his father dies. As head of the family, Ned is fiercely protective of his mother and siblings, putting his heart and soul into building fences around their farm in Victoria and clearing the land to protect crops and livestock.  Manoeuvred by his mother to become an apprentice to the infamous bushranger Harry Power, Ned is drawn increasingly into a life of crime. He fights with his mother’s suitors and the police, and when he shoots a  treacherous police officer in self-defense, Ned is forced to flee into the wild bush country. With his younger brother and two friends he commits audacious crimes, all the while gaining widespread support from poor oppressed farmers and remaining one step ahead of the forces of law and order.

True History of the Kelly Gang is an imaginative reconstruction of Ned Kelly’s life story in his own words. Dedicated to the baby daughter he has never seen, Kelly wants to set the record straight. He promises her at the beginning that his history “will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false” and the word ‘True’ in the title further seeks to persuade us that this is an definitive and authoritative account of his life and of the injustices suffered by the Irish in Australia.

He repeatedly represents himself as a person who was pushed into the life of an outlaw by forces beyond his control. “What choice did I have?” he asks, when he kills the constable who heads the local police station. At other times he reflects on how he has been betrayed by the dishonesty of others. He operates to a code of ethics that will not let him see his brother imprisoned for an act that he Ned committed, and that drives him to rob banks to raise money for the release of his mother from what he considers an unlawful imprisonment. All of this is in strong contrast to the lack of princples he witness among the police, judges and fellow settlers.

All of this is rendered in a style that is striking. Carey’s narrative has a directness and immediacy of tone that makes it hard to resist Kelly’s portrait of himself as a man who had the stuffing knocked out of him  as a child. Coming out of a stint of hard labour in prison he reflects:

I were 17 yr old when I came out of prison 6ft 2in. broad of shoulder my hands as hard as the hammers we had swung inside the walls of Beecworth Goal. I had a mighty beard and was a child no more although in truth I do not know what childhood or youth I ever had. What remained if any were finally taken away inside that goal boiled off me like fat and marrow is rendered within the tallow pot.

The raggedness of this style of writing with its lack of punctuation and free flow from one thought to another took me a little time to get used to but once any initial reservations were overcome, I got swept along. Kelly may have lacked a formal education but he knows how to tell a story and to describe the environment in which he lives and hides. Here are a few examples I picked out:

“Many is the night I have sat by the roaring river the rain never ending them logs so green bubbling and spitting blazing in a rage no rain can staunch.” 

“The clouds was light but queerly yellow on their edges as they moved across the ageless constellations.” 

“Curtains of bark hung from the trunks like shredded skin”

These moments together with flashes of humour and reflections on the Irish experience were welcome contrasts to the torrent of detail about cattle thieving, double crossing, run-ins with the law and shoot-outs. Ned Kelly seems to have perfect recall of every stage of his life and every conversation and to want to tell us about every single detail. I got a bit tired of this three quarters of the way through. Though I did enjoy it, less would certainly have more with this book.

Footnotes

About this book: True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey was first published in 2000 by the University of Queensland Press. It won the Booker Prize in 2001. My copy is a paperback published by Mackays of Chatham.

About the author: Born in Australia in 1943, Peter Carey is the author of six previous novels and a collection of stories. He won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda; his other honors include the Commonwealth Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. He became only the second author to win the Booker Prize twice.

Why I read this book: it’s one of the few remaining books on my Booker Prize project. I included it in my 20booksofsummer project for 2017.

Back to hard sums and commas

School term started a few weeks ago here in the UK. This weekend saw thousands of new students (including my nephew) head off for university which means Cardiff, where there are two universities and a further education college, is best avoided for a little while. I made a mistake last year and ended up in the city during Fresher’s Week – the pavements were congested with  gangs of students (why do all newbies go around in large groups) and the roads full of these odd-looking vehicles where people sat at a bar drinking beer while cycling. A dangerous combination surely? The most amusing aspect was to encounter the people handing out leaflets for parties and bars  – I clearly wasn’t in the right age profile for such festivities but they didn’t want to offend me so kept foistering all this stuff on me. I kept all the coffee shop vouchers and 2 for 1 cocktails but ditched the ones for the burger chains along with the free condoms.

Not to be outdone I had my own back-to-school event this week. Not as a student but as a volunteer for an adult literacy and numeracy programme being run in my village. Literacy is something I’ve always been passionate about, even more so after I met the woman who started the Plain English Campaign in the UK. Chrissie Maher didn’t learn to read until she was in her mid teens. Many years later,  frustrated by the complexity of a lot of government forms, she set up a project in Salford, UK to help people in the same position. In 1979 she took on the government by burning piles of their forms in front of the Houses of Parliament, an act which brought her to the attention of a government minister called Margaret Thatcher. The Plain English Campaign was born as a result.

I’m not in the same league as Chrissie Maher but I know there are many adults who struggle with writing and arithmetic because they missed out a lot of formal education. The Essential Skills programme is giving them a second chance. A few of the people in our programme are mothers who want to become youth workers but can’t start training until they can prove they have basic literacy and numeracy skills. We also have some young people who can’t start college because they don’t have the required qualifications. Even though we’ve only had a few sessions together I’m impressed by how determined all these people are – it takes a lot of courage to say ‘I need help.’

It’s been an eye-opening experience for me because it’s meant digging into the grey cells to remember concepts I first learned 40 or 50 years ago. I’ve worked with words for all of my career so I think I know a thing or two about punctuation and sentence construction but explaining it, now that’s a different thing. Faced this week with the question: what are the two situations in which you use a comma, my mind went blank. I know it instinctively but that’s not much use to students faced with the conundrum of when to use it’s rather than its or whose instead of who’s.

The picture with arithmetic is even worse. I’ve thought for many years that there are words people and numbers people. I belong firmly to the first. Show me a piece of text and I can summarise, analyse, edit or proof read it easily and quickly. Show me a set of numbers or a chart and I’ll be able to make some sense of it  – eventually. It made work rather challenging often when I’d be sat with one of our business boards reviewing last quarter’s performance for example and everyone else would quickly home in on what was working well/ what was heading for a fall etc. Me, I’d still be working it out long after they’d passed to the next topic.

Addition, multiplication , subtraction, division I can do in my head (the product of working in my parent’s shop every Saturday without the benefit of a calculator or fancy cash till). But I’ve forgotten everything I ever learned about multiplication of fractions, how to solve an equation or calculate the area of a circle. I knew it once (I have the certificate to prove it) but it’s long disappeared down memory lane. As for those stupid questions about calculating how long a bath fills if the tap runs at x gallons a minute and the plug hole empties at y gallons a minute, I never did figure how out to solve those puzles. I couldn’t ever see the point really. Nor did I see the purpose in calculating the point at which two trains would pass if they were travelling in opposite directions at different speeds. I mean, how many times in the last five years have you been called upon to know how to do this?

maths booksBut these are still questions that our students might encounter so I thought I’d better refresh the old memory. Part of my summer has therefore been spent re-learning how to multiply and divide fractions and decimals (this has generated much heated debate with Mr Booker Talk who takes a completely different route to get to the answers) and work out percentages. As you can tell from the title of these two books I’ve gone right back to the beginning. It’s going to get harder from here on though – next step is my old favourite of algebra. But I need a glass of wine to help me with that I suspect.

Strangers by Taichi Yamada [book review]

Strangers-YamadaStrangers is an odd little book and isn’t my usual fare because it involves ghosts. Fortunately there was more to it than the spectral element.

Hideo Harada is a middle-aged television scriptwriter who has recently been divorced. The separation was costly and he can’t afford to buy a decent apartment so he sets up home in his office in a high-rise apartment block overlooking Tokyo’s busy Route 8. At night when all the office workers leave, silence descends on the building. He thinks he is the only person in the place but one evening looking up at his building from the outside, he sees one other lit window. A few days later Kei, an attractive woman fifteen years his junior shows up at his apartment with a bottle of champagne in hand. 

On the night of his birthday, hit by a wave of nostalgia, he visits the entertainment district of Asakusa where he grew up. His parents died many years ago, killed in a road accident when he was 12 and they were in their mid thirties. In the old and now run-down streets he goes to the theatre where he sees a mediocre comedian. In the audience he is astonished to see a man who looks exactly like his long-dead sushi chef father. Invited for drinks at the man’s home, Harada is even more astounded to find that the wife looks exactly like his dead mother.  They’re the same age as his parents were when they died.  

How can that be possible he wonders?  There is only one possible explanation he concludes – they are an hallucination caused by his solitude and grief.   He thought he’d buried his grief for his parents but seeing them makes him realise that “Somewhere deep inside of me I had been yearning desperately for the warm embrace of parental love.

It’s that yearning that compels him to make return visits. Every time he does so, he feels bathed in the warmth of their welcome and their easy acceptance of him. Over the course of a few visits he relaxes enough to begin calling them Mom and Dad, finding a deep pleasure in their company and the opportunity to re-live happy childhood experiences as well as make up for lost time. 

Kei isn’t convinced his trips to Asakusa are good for his health. She sees Heido changing day-by-day, becoming hollow-eyed, aged and emaciated. She’s even more worried because Heido himself cannot see these changes – when he looks at himself in the mirror he looks as healthy as ever.  Can Kei save him from the ghosts of his past? Or is his desire to make up for the lost years of his relationship with his parents too strong to resist?

related in a pared-down prose style that matches well with Harada’s spartan life. He’s doesn’t seem to have any friends, he has lost touch with his only son and has no interest other than working on the script for a new series. Understandable therefore that he feels the pull towards this other surreal world.

It’s an engaging story that has a satisfying twist at the end. The supernatural elements don’t stand up to much scrutiny but I was more taken by the way Yamada deals with the psychological aspects. He deftly portrays the conflict Hideo experiences for example.

He is elated when he meets his ‘parents’ and is eager to be well regarded in their eyes. He desperately wants them to be proud of the man he has become so he takes them treats of cookies and fresh melon and orders in special delicacies for their meals together to show he can afford to do so.  But he is also afraid that his girlfriend might be right: his dead parents are sucking the life out of him.

No matter how free of malice and mischief my parents’ intentions might be, there could be no denying that they had long since passed into the world of the dead. The return of the dead fundamentally undermines the order of the living and I wholeheartedly shared Kei’s conviction that contact with such beings was something to be avoided. Yet when it concerned my own mother and father, I could not bring myself to think of them as an evil to be fought.

Unfortunately Yamada hasn’t been well served by the translation. Some of the dialogue between Harada and his parents struck me as incongruous. Would a man who lived in the 1940s really use the greeting “Yo” for example or tell his son “Put ‘er there” when he wants to shake hands?  His interactions with his son – it’s all “Whadja expect?” and “Okey-dokey” – struck too many false notes for me. I know the intent was to show how relaxed the man is with his son but Japanese idioms would have worked far bettr than these American English expressions. If you can ignore that then the book works fairly well as a story of uncanny events that is laden with atmosphere and a psychological portrait of a man who is emotionally starved.

Footnotes

About the Book: Strangers by Taichi Yamada was first published in Japanese as Ijin-tachi to no Natsu in 1987.  It won the Yamamoto Shūgorō Prize, an award made each year to new work of fiction considered to exemplify the art of storytelling,. The novel was translated into English in 2003. My 2006 edition, translated by Wayne P Lammers, is from Faber.

About the Author: Taichi Yamada is the pen name of Taichi Ishizaka, a film and television drama scriptwriter. Strangers was his first novel. He has since written two more that are available in English:  In Search of a Distant Voice,  and I Haven’t Dreamed of Flying for a While. 

Why I read this book: I can’t remember why I bought this book or even when. It’s a second hand copy but from where I have no idea. I read it as part of Japan lit challenge hosted on the Dolce Bellezza blog.

10 (or more) books on the horizon

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday invites us to list the books on our reading horizons for autumn. I had intended to say that I don’t have an Autumn reading plan because a) I’m no good at sticking to these kinds of plans b) I haven’t long finished working through the 20booksofsummer list so am suffering a little list fatigue and c) I’m a hopeless prevaricator so can never make up my mind in advance what I want to read.

But then of course I remembered that I have a little unfinished business with my Booker project. So by default I seem to have a plan of sorts because I want to finish this project by the end of the year. That means I know there are  seven Booker Prize winners I will be reading in coming months.

7 Booker titles

2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)

2004 – The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)

2003 – Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)

1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)

1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)

1972 – G. (J Berger)

Based on the insight from several bloggers I’m saving The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end. The order in which I read the other five will be down to the mood I’m in at the time I’m ready to start a new book.

What else is in the offing?  

Reservoir 13From the library today I picked up a copy of Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and – according to many comments I’ve seen – deserved to be on the shortlist but was overlooked by the judges.  In it, he depicts the aftermath of the disappearance of a 13 year old girl during a New Year’s holiday in a village in the Peak District. Over the course of 13 years, McGregor shows how life goes on in this community after the initial shock of her disappearance. To get the best idea of this book take a look at Susan’s review at A Life in Books.

I’ve already started reading this it being a perfect day to sit in the sunshine with a coffee and read. And so far it’s turned out to be a remarkable book…

I have a few novels I’ve agreed to review including a crime story in the style of the Golden Age of Crime, a historical fiction book set in Versailles and a new work by Richard Flanagan called First Person which is apparently a story about a ghostwriter haunted by his demonic subject.

And then there are a few Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Lively novels that are calling to me, and it’s time I revisited some of my classics club list. which has a few Anthony Trollope and Emile Zola titles I fancy. But wait a moment, what about all the Louise Penny titles I bought on my last trip to the USA? And the authors from Wales that I’m trying to highlight….

Even with my less than stellar arithmetical skills I realise I’m way over 10 books. Better get reading hadn’t I????

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