Meet Alys Einion in Cwtch Corner #Waleswrites

Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.

Cwtch-Corner

To kick off this new series, I’m joined by Alys Einion, the author of two books: Inshallah and the follow up, Ash. I had the pleasure of reading Ash earlier this year (my review is here) and then met up with Alys at an open reading event in Cardiff. 

“Hi again Karen, thanks for talking to me. Books are one of my most favourite subjects to talk about.”

Alys EinionQ: Let’s begin by asking you to imagine you’ve just met some readers in a lift. You have only a few floors to persuade them to read your latest book, Ash. What’s your pitch?

“I’d say Ash is about the relentless toil of motherhood and the need for intimacy meet and clash with the first stirrings of womanhood and identity, as two tales of life and what it does to us coalesce in a journey of becoming.”

Q: What inspired you to write Inshallah and Ash?

“Oh, now you’re challenging me!

“Inshallah was born out of a conversation with an acquaintance, a friend really, though we’re not in touch any more. It was a conversation about someone who did something similar to what Amanda does – and it started a huge train of thought, mainly about faith, belief, and fatalism or submission.

Inshallah.jpg

“My first idea was to call it The Submission because a key feature is that Amanda (the protagonist) finds faith and decides that everything is happening to her because it is meant to happen, a

nd that she should submit to a higher power. Which then means she is meant to do what is in front of her – marry Muhammed because she is pregnant. In Arabic, the word or phrase Inshallah, means something like Submission to God or God Willing, so I was inspired by this idea.

“I was fascinated by the idea of faith, absolute faith, and also really keen to explore the experiences of a woman marrying, moving to an alien culture, and learning to fit in, including having to learn a new language.

“It required a lot of research. But some of it was based on my own experiences, as I did something similar when I was young – though I only went from South Wales to North Wales!  I guess I understood the idea of feeling like a path was laid out for me, and I believed (and still do) in a higher power that was putting opportunities in front of me.

“Amanda’s choices are extreme, but the beauty of her story lies in her ability to survive, to endure. I also really wanted to write something that explores sexual violence. That was a tough choice, and not popular, and not easy to do. But violence and control in relationships is remarkably common. And I wanted to draw a distinction between the community of women, and the faith, that Amanda grew into, and the one single horrible man who threatened to destroy her life. I know many women who have escaped from terrible, abusive relationships and I wanted their stories to be partly present, I suppose. We have our own hero’s journey, one that is uniquely female.

Ash“Ash followed on from that. I hadn’t  intended to write a sequel, but reader responses and a discussion with my editor started a seed of thought, particularly about telling Ash’s story (Amanda’s daughter).

“A lot was inspired by my experiences as a mother, and also watching others’ experiences particularly as single parents, addressing adversity and keeping going. I was particularly struck by the people I saw around me – mothers, children, the occasional father – and all the ways in which they interacted. I am not really inspired by typical story arcs, and running two narratives on two different timelines was a bit of a challenge. But I wanted to tell Amanda’s ongoing story, and to not romanticise it, and to get up close and personal with the experience of girls becoming women. Ash is more controversial than Inshallah, but it came from the same source – uncompromising depiction of what womanhood can be like in our modern world.

“When I am writing, there’s something like a flash of sudden light, a realisation as the story takes root – a bit like conception, I suppose. There may be ideas, germs of ideas, vague thoughts and feelings, but something sparks the story to life and suddenly it takes on a life of its own. I was reading a news article about radicalisation as preparation for a teaching session – and boom! There it was.”

Q. What books would you say have shaped you most as a reader and as an author?

Wow, that’s a big question, but luckily it’s something that I think about quite a lot.

lordof the rings.jpg“I read The Hobbit when I was seven, and it caught my imagination in a significant way. My mother was a big Tolkien fan. So when I was eleven years old,  I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time. It was a challenge but I fell in love.

“I read that book every year, at least once. I always find something new and beautiful in it.  And I cry, every time I read it, when Sam picks up Frodo and carries him up Mount Doom. It is the epitome of love.

“That book made me think about what constitutes a good story. I realised that I wanted to be moved by what I was reading, to connect in some way beyond simply enjoying a story. The use of language, in some places, is so profound, but you also learn that it is a bit of an anti-story. Lots of people criticise it, especially fellow feminists, but I find it moving and very inspiring, and it has some of my favourite quotes in it, almost like a philosophy for life.”

I was also powerfully affected by a book I got from the library when I was around 12 or 13. My mother was the branch librarian in our village, so I spent quite a lot of time in the library as a child and teenager, and read a wide variety of things.

“Requiem for a Princess by Ruth M Arthur – probably what would now be classed as YA fiction – was a favourite; so magical and so evocative. It was one of the first books other than Lord of the Rings that made me cry.  In it, the main character has been ill, and is sent to Cornwall to convalesce, and during this time experiences vivid dreams of a ghostly Italian princess and a tragic love story.

“It’s a short book, but beautifully written, and I read it again and again. It was eventually returned to the library, but the story stayed with me, and about 20 years ago I logged on to a book finding site and put in a request to search for it. It took nine years, but a copy of the book surfaced and I bought it – and it’s a library edition, just like the one I first read. It’s hard to describe this, but so many books stay with me, like really old friends – and that is one of them.

“A few other books I’ll mention:

  • Anne McCaffrey’s books:  I have everything she ever wrote, and even wrote to her in my 20s for advice as a writer.
  • Roxane Gay, whose book Difficult Women is mind-blowing
  • Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most significant influences on my writing. I read it in my late teens, and again, I have re-read it several times.
  • Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe. It’s about writing. It’s a novel, but really cleverly explores writing and structure etc.
  • Stephen King’s On Writing is brilliant.

Q. Where do you like to write? Do you have a favourite place or chair? 

“I have a lovely antique teachers’ desk in my living room, which is where I like to write when I am at home. It has a big, broad surface which suits my habit of covering it with papers and books. I like to write longhand, on yellow, lined paper, with a fountain pen. Then I type up and edit onto a laptop. The desk sits in the bay window. I love to write in windows, to be able to look out as I let my thoughts wander.

teacup

Most of Inshallah and Ash were written in cafes, including one just around the corner from me. It’s full of different characters and the staff are great. I find it easier to write in places like that, though I often get the urge in all kinds of places. Pubs, trains, anywhere really. I really like to people watch as well. It’s really fascinating and interesting. But there has to be plenty of tea available.

 

oxwich bay.jpg

“Sometimes, I take my camper van down to the beach nearby, usually Oxwich, and park up and then spend the day writing. It’s almost perfect, and that works when I want to feel close to the wild and to get away from housework and emails and my day job. That can help me be more disciplined, as I don’t get distracted by mundane things.

 

Q. Do you tend to give up on books or are you someone who feels they need to finish everything? 

“Hmm well that has changed over time.

“I used to be really stubborn and finish everything  – even War and Peace! If I got past the first 10 pages, I was committed. What might turn me off at the beginning would be bad writing, or simply a style that I could not get on with. Some books I would read even if I didn’t like the style, because I wanted to have read them (eg some Dickens can be quite dense but I stuck with it, and don’t get me started on Chaucer).

“Some books have surprised me over the years. I found Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda much harder to read than Jane Austen, but I persevered because of the subject matter. But I read a lot of lighter fiction in between the more literary fiction, as it provides lovely light relief and is a great foil for my academic work. I am not a literary snob by any means. I will persevere with some books in order to broaden my horizons. If I find an author I like, I will basically buy everything they have ever written.

“Nowadays, I am incredibly busy all the time, and although I read constantly, it has to be fitted in around everything else. So I have to really be into the book to commit to it. Time is precious – I will put a book down if I can’t get on with it, but more often than not I will come back to it weeks, months or even years later and try it again. Sometimes I will finish it on the second go, sometimes not.

“I might buy books based on recommendations from other people, often online purchases which are handy when I am really busy. But nothing beats going to the library, or to a bookshop, and touching and opening books and trying out a few pages to see if this is something I should read. And I read fellow Honno author books, partly because they are really good books by women, partly out of solidarity – which has proved a real blessing as I have discovered new nuggets of story that shine well beyond the point when I shut the book at the end. I do try to make a point of reading books published by independent presses because I think good writing is good writing.

“I think, though, overall, when you know just what goes into a book – how much work it takes to produce that story, it makes you more inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt, and keep going. Usually it’s worth it. Some books are an acquired taste, like Marmite or olives. Still, if it’s sprouts, it’s sprouts, and then it’s a no from me.”

Q. Before you go, since this is meant to be a series about Welsh writers, I have to ask whether you think there is a characteristic spirit, theme or preoccupation in fiction from Wales; something that makes it uniquely Welsh? 

“Ah, now that’s another good question.

“I think that people from Wales, perhaps even without knowing it, and particularly writers, are affected by our cultural heritage. I grew up with not a very good opinion of Welsh cultural heritage, mainly because my education and teachers was focused on England and English texts and English arts and culture. It was only as I grew older that I realised that the richness of Wales lay in its history and its literature and art and its working class bones, as it were. I learned to be fiercely proud of being Welsh.

“I think people who have lived in Wales develop a strong sense of hiraedd, and it infects our writing. I know that when I write, this country is the context of many of my thoughts. I think there is a character in this land, which we all share, of endurance and strength and beauty found in unexpected places.

“But I also think that this land holds anger and bitterness, the grief and loss of heritage, language, culture and prosperity, and the echoes of our subordination and occupation.

“Mostly I think that Welsh culture, and in particular, Welsh writing, incorporates a realistic appreciation of life, struggle, triumph, and community. And I think it is the romantic wild soul of the Welsh, and of this land, that mixes with that anger, and affects us all. “


Alys Einion has been a nurse and a midwife but now works as Associate Professor of Midwifery and Women’s Health at Swansea University in Wales. She gained a PhD in 2012, studying the intersection between women’s life writing, fiction and representations of sexual violence, which led to the publication of her first novel Inshallah. She also has aPhD in Creative Writing.  She is published by Honno Press.  She can be contacted via Twitter @AlysEinion.

 

Life by Keith Richards #book review

I lead a gentleman’s life. Listen to Mozart, read many, many books. I’m a voracious reader. History, in  particular the British Navy, is my subject. The Nelson era and World War II are top of my list, but I do the ancient Romans too. I have a fine library furnished with these works, with dark wooden shelves reaching to the ceiling. This is where I hole up.

lifeThis is not perhaps how most people would picture the leisure days of one of rock and roll’s most famously debauched characters. Yet in his 2010 autobiography Life (there were surely more compelling title options than that!), Keith Richards comes across as a surprisingly erudite, intelligent and articulate individual. And yes, in his own way, he seems to be a gentleman – and a gentle man.

‘Surprisingly’ sounds condescending and perhaps a little naive – swallowing the druggie, dissolute showman image whole and not giving too much thought to the fact that that there is a person underneath this facade.

And this autobiography reveals a person who is thoughtful, perceptive, caring and seemingly completely without prejudices and the baggage of judgement. Naturally his background means that he is not a great respecter of ‘suits’ – the Establishment. The 75-year-old (67 when the book came out) has always been ready to ‘stick it to the man’ both in song, gesture, verbal exchange and – in previous years – in deed (he’s had a few punch-ups along the way and admits to habitually carrying a knife).

The writing style here is engaging. How much credit is due to the co-author James Fox is difficult to judge. The former Sunday Times journalist has been a friend of the rock star since the early 1970s and would certainly be able to bring an authentic authorial tone to the writing. But to me the voice (and certainly the view of life) belongs largely to the man himself. Fox is perhaps not so much ghosting and tidying up the prose – putting apostrophes where they should be and reworking sentences which lost their way.

First meeting with Jagger

We begin in 1940s Dartford, Kent, birthplace of Richards and a certain Mick Jagger. The family history background, often rather tedious in works such as these, is illuminating and entertaining. By sticking to the salient, Richards keeps the reader engaged. 

From a boyhood love of the guitar and hours of finger-bleeding practice, his story leads us through the famous railway station meeting with Jagger – where a profound affinity in musical taste is established – to the early days of playing for beer (or for nothing) in seedy clubs and grimy pubs. Band members come and go; Brian Jones appears and stays; Jagger and Richards really want a drummer called Charlie Watts and they manage to snare him; a bassist called Bill Perks completes the line-up under the name of Wyman.

Years of poverty (getting the deposit back on stolen beer bottles) in squalid houses and flats precede a sudden propulsion – under the management of Andrew Oldham – to modest fame, notoriety (urinating at the roadside) and ultimately world-dominating rock deity.

Keith Richards

The career-span of The Rolling Stones is unprecedented in the world of showbiz. In the 1989 documentary 25×5, Richards (then a mere 46 years old) said the band was travelling ‘without maps’. No other group had lasted that long; there was no model, no template to follow. Amazingly the Stones continue to tour to this day filling gigantic stadia the world over. They’ve gone from ‘Lock up your daughters’ through ‘Lock up your mums’ to ‘Lock up your grannies’ and still (replacing a guitarist or two) they rock on.

The rise-to-fame part of the story Richards tells without pretensions of grandeur. He knows the band is unique and very good at what they do. He doesn’t have to work the message. His engaging, chat-over-a-pint style is never affected. He is proud of his achievements but not boastful.

An unreliable narrator?

There is, however, a point in the book where Richards becomes less engaging and develops the feels of an unreliable narrator. For most of the 1970s he was catastrophically involved with drugs. Heroin, in particular, created turmoil in his life. Though he somehow managed to make the gigs and turn up in the recording studio, his life was formed around drugs and the necessity to have them available. It took several years, in and out of cold turkey, to free himself from smack. When he came round, it was the 80s.

It is in this passage of Life that Richards loses my good will. He complains about Jagger’s insistence on controlling the band and making the decisions – conveniently forgetting that for a decade he was more or less out of his wits and his band mate had stepped up to the mark to keep the show on the road. Until then Richards had always been the glue, keeping the best interests of the group at heart and pushing forward.

Though there had been some disagreements between the two before (an unavoidable clash of two massive egos) this was the start of a rift between the boyhood friends which endures to this day. Richards complains that Jagger became ‘a control freak’ but doesn’t acknowledge that there was probably good reason for Mick taking the reins – doubting, as he must have done, the mental capabilities of his junkie partner.

Earlier in the book Richards complains that Brian Jones had become unpredictable and unreliable because of his drug habit. Regarded as an embarrassment and dead weight, he wanted Jones gone. Jagger can’t be blamed for feeling Richards had become a similar encumbrance, though the loss of this gifted songwriting partner would probably have dealt a lethal blow to the band.

But Richards pulled out of his nosedive and the band played on. The group’s legendary globe-trotting tours continue to this day with all four frontmen well into their 70s, travelling without maps and, seemingly – bar the odd accident with a coconut tree – without care. As they once observed: it’s only rock n roll.

Love is in the air

love-3061483_640

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

Since today is Valentine’s Day what better opportunity can there be to talk about how fiction represents romance and love? St Valentine is traditionally associated with courtly and romantic love but authors through the ages have shown different facets of the emotion. So today I’ve picked ten fictional couples whose relationships represent different dimensions of love.

Since the course of true love doesn’t always run smoothly, let’s start with a few examples of troubled relationships.

Pip and Estella

We begin with an example of unrequited love via Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip, the humble blacksmith who gains wealth from a mysterious benefactor, falls in love with the glamorous Estella though she is aloof and hostile towards him. Dickens’s ending makes it ambiguous whether the two ever marry.

The Butler and the Housekeeper

Remains of the day

Still from the film of The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker prize winning novel The Remains of the Day, gives us an example of love that is never declared.  Stevens the butler at Darlington Hall has practiced restraint for so long that he cannot ever allow himself to relax enough to show his true feelings. His relationship with the young housekeeper Miss Kenton at times comes close to blossoming into romance but even when Miss Kenton tries to draw closer to him, his stunted emotional life holds him back.

Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder 

Love of a different nature is shown in Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, where two young men meet as students at Oxford. Charles Ryder, who comes from a sterile, loveless home, is mesmerised by the glamorous and wealthy Flyte family and their stately home at Brideshead. He spends idyllic summers with Sebastian but is powerless when his friend descends into depression and alcoholism. Bruised by the experience, Charles falls into a loveless marriage and then finds temporary solace with Sebastian’s sister Julia. The question readers have to decide for themselves is whether Sebastian was simply the appetiser for the real deal of Charles’ love for Julia or is she second best to Sebastian?

Elizabeth Bennett and Lord Darcy

Sometimes love happens between the most unlikely of individuals. The romantic clash between the opinionated Elizabeth Bennett and the proud Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy is one that has delighted readers since Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813.  Jane Austen gets them off to a rocky start however.  In their first encounter Darcy thinks Jane”…tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.”

“From the very beginning— from the first moment, I may almost say— of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

Frank Doel and Helene Hanff

You could argue that isn’t strictly a romantic  relationship since the author Helene Hanff and the antiquarian bookseller Frank Doel never meet. But I’d challenge anyone to read the letters that fly from New York to London in Hanff’s memoir, 84 Charing Cross Road, and not come to the conclusion that there is something more going on than just a mutual affection for books.

Gabriel Oak and Bathseba Everdene

In Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy shows love can endure despite many challenges. Gabriel Oak (his name is a big clue as to his nature) doesn’t give up when the uppity Miss Everdene rejects his marriage proposal. He becomes a servant on her farm while she embarks on a disastrous relationship with a solider. But when she needs him most, he is ready to forgive…. Hardy is careful to show that the love that Gabriel and Bathsheba share is not the passion of a first love but a sadder and wiser connection born out of trials and tribulations. 

Sapper Kip and Hana the nurse

I can’t talk about love without mentioning my favourite Booker prize winner, The English Patient by Michael Ondatjee. It shows that sometimes love flourishes in the most unlikely of situations. In this case, in a bomb-damaged Italian villa during the Italian Campaign of World War II, where four people are thrown together unexpectedly.  Hana, a troubled young Canadian Army nurse, is caring for a man severely burned in a flying accident. The death of her lover causes her to believe that she is cursed and that all those around her are doomed to die. The arrival at the villa of a Sikh British Army sapper, reawakens her emotions. But their affair is shortlived. Kip is horrified when he learns about the Hiroshima bombing, leaving the villa to return to his native India. He never sees Hana again though he never stops recalling the effect she had on his life.

Dexter and Emma

How long can you be in love with someone and yet never realise it? For the couple in David Nicholls novel One Day, it takes almost 20 years for them to get together after they spend the night together on their graduation from Edinburgh university.  The novel visits their lives and their relationship on that date – 15 July – in successive years in each chapter, for 20 years. Does it all end happily?  Not quite. But you’ll have to read the book to discover why not.

Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson

The Graduate

Still from the ending of the film The Graduate

I can’t end without an example of what many people would consider to be the ultimate romantic gesture. In The Graduate, Benjamin, a new college graduate with no idea what to do with the rest of his life,  is seduced by an older woman, Mrs. Robinson. But then realises it’s her daughter Elaine that he loves. Slight problem: she is about to marry another boy. Queue a desperate race to get to the church before Elaine says I do. If you’ve watched the film starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, you’ll know there is a dramatic ending involving a bride and a bus. I’m not cheating here by the way – the film is in fact based on a novel of the same name written by Charles Webb and published in 1963.


So there you have 10 couples who each, in one way or another, reflect love in many forms. Are there any couples you think of instantly when the subject of love crops up?

The Clever Guts Diet by Michael Mosely #book review

What happens in our bodies when we eat a meal or swallow a drink?

clever gutsMany people would rather not know the answer and yet the last few years have seen more and more evidence about the importance of our digestive system to overall health and well-being. Three separate specialists from different branches of medicine  and health have all told me in the last year that the gut is now considered as a second brain: a highly integrated system that manages a set of processes as complex as all those neural pathways. When a surgeon, a physiotherapist and a mindfullness teacher all sang the same song  I began to sit up and pay attention.

Which is how I came to be reading Michael Mosely’s book: The Clever Guts Diet: How to Revolutionise Your Body From The Inside Out.

I’ve seen Michael Mosely multiple times on British television through his Trust Me I’m A Doctor series and he always struck me as the kind of man who isn’t swayed by fads or pseudo science of the kind  trotted by many a clean eating celebrity.  He has a deeply inquiring mind  that often leads him to take extreme actions in a search for answers. In this case, his desire to know how the digestive system really works, what foods might trigger problems like allergies or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and cancer, led him to an experiment with a live audience at the British Museum.

After a meal of steak, chips and kale washed down with apple juice he then swallowed a microscopic camera called a “pillcam”, which captured digital images of  his gastrointestinal tract . The idea was to watch in real-time what happened to his meal.

Your gut is astonishingly clever. It contains millions of neurons – as many as you would find in the head of a cat. It is also home to the microbiome, trillions of microbes that influence our mood, weight and immune system.

Mosely loves those microbes.  He can name the different species of the 50 million microbes (mainly bacteria)  that live in the gut and make up the microbiome.

The bad news? A diet limited in variety and heavy in processed food – along with antibiotic overuse – has ravaged the modern microbiome. This helps explain dramatic increases in health conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel diseases, allergies, food intolerances, asthma and eczema.

But there is good news in the book too. It’s possible, says Mosely, to halt the damage and reboot the system back to health with a gut-friendly eating regime. Avoiding fruit juice is an early piece of advice. It moves through the body so quickly there’s little time for its nutrients to be absorbed. Worse still: it creates a spike in blood sugar levels.  Sugar encourages the growth of the microbes that love sugar,. They crave even more of it – telling your brain (and you) to eat more … and more….  In the meantime, the good microbes get destroyed.

So message number one: cut down (or even better, out) uncessary sugar.

Message number two:  encourage the growth and variety of “good” gut microbes, by eating probiotics (fermented foods that contain live bacteria and yeast) and prebiotics (certain vegetables and pulses containing indigestible plant fibre).

The Good Gut Diet is based on research Mosely conducted for more than a year during which he interviewed multiple experts and read scores of research papers. The result is a  treasure house of insights and factual information.   It’s often amusing. Often provokes a reaction of Yuck when you read it. But it’s also thought provoking. This is not a book for anyone who feels in the slightest bit queasy when confronted by information about bodily functions but it is definitely a book for anyone who wants to take back control of their health.

 

About the author

Michael Mosely  was an investment banker who retrained as a doctor. After studying medicine at the Royal Free Hospital in London and qualifying as a doctor…he decided that he was better suited to the world of television. He has made numerous science and history documentaries for the BBC, first behind the camera and more recently as a presenter.

He has won numerous awards, including being named Medical Journalist of the Year by the British Medical Association in 1995. 

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje #bookreview

WarlightMichael Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight, is a stunning tale about loss and displacement set in the mysterious world of espionage.

It opens in 1945 when 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister Rachel discover their parents are off to Singapore, supposedly in connection with their father’s job. They are left in the care of a strange man called The Moth and an odd assortment of his friends who drift in and out of the house in Ruvigny Gardens in London. The purpose of their visits and their connection to the absent parents only becomes clear in the second half of the book. 

Chief among the visitors is The Darter, a former boxer turned con artist, who ropes Nathaniel into his illegal nighttime expeditions through the streets and waterways of post-war London. Together they collect illegally imported greyhounds and smuggle them to racing tracks around the capital.

The first half of the novel is essentially about Nathaniel’s education in life, when “cut loose by my parents, I was consuming everything around me.” Through the Moth’s connections he begins working as a dishwasher at the Criterion hotel, mingling with the mainly immigrant staff, and bunking off school. And he has his first sexual experience with a girl who calls herself Agnes (we never learn her real name), in empty houses that have escaped bomb damage and are now up for sale.

Part two of Warlight sees Nathaniel, now aged 28, and working in a department of an unnamed branch of British Intelligence. Though he is narrating his strange adolescence we come to realise that this book is not about him, but about his now-dead mother Rose and his attempts to piece together her life. In particular he wants to discover what happened during the final year of the war when he was left in the care of The Moth. 

In furtive forays through the basement archives of his employer, he traces his mother’s double life as a spy whose radio transmissions were monitored closely by the Nazis. But though he can piece together fragments of her life, including her narrow escape from capture, she remains an enigma. Equally puzzling is his mother’s relationship with another agent, whom she first met when she was a child and he was the boy who fell from the roof of her parents’ house while working as a thatcher.

But as Nathaniel reflects towards the end of the book that all he has done is to “step into fragments of their story”. 

We never know more than the surface of any relationship after a certain stage, just as those layers of chalk, built from the efforts of infinitesimal creatures, work in almost limitless time.

Although much in this novel is murky, one thing is clear: the qualities I loved in Ondaatje’s earlier novel The English Patient are in abundance in Warlight. In particular his ability to convey character and atmosphere through sharply perceived images: Nathaniel’s night time trips through the waterways of the darkened city, his assignations with Agnes in grand mansions as greyhounds romp around the empty rooms.  They are scenes that will longer long in my memory. 

There is a poignancy too in this novel. Nathaniel never sees his father again; his role in the whole escape to Singapore remains unclear, he cannot even find a photograph of the man. Though he does re-unite with his mother who has hidden herself in a cottage in “a distant village, a walled garden”, the relationship between them is taut and uncomfortable. The boy’s desire to find that bond is palpable but Rose is too much on her guard to be at peace with her son, fearing that one day, she will be discovered by those who believe her actions during the war were dishonourable. 

Warlight is a thoughtful book. Ondatjee doesn’t focus only on the human dimension of relationships but about the morality of actions committed during war. Rose and her fellow agents were acting in the name of piece but they were still responsible for many deaths It’s a point that Nathaniel reflects upon:

In this post-war world, twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bowed over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position.

Warlight is such an outstanding novel that I am completely perplexed how it didn’t win the Booker Prize in 2018.

 

Six Degrees from boxing to murder

It’s time for another round of Six Degrees, a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books.

This month we begin with Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk which follows the experience of an unnamed man who joins an underground fighting club to help him deal with insomnia. Since I find boxing and bare knuckle fighting abhorrent, I’ve not read this book and have no intention of doing so in the future.

But let’s stick with sleep disorders and move onto a novel I have read.

The-Elected-MemberThe Elected Member by Bernice Rubens won the Booker Prize in 1970. She pulls back the curtains of a seemingly respectable Jewish family to show the misery of drug addiction. Infant prodigy; brilliant barrister; the apple of his parents’ eyes… Norman Zweck appeared destined for even greater things until at forty-one he becomes a drug addict, confined to his bedroom, at the mercy of his hallucinations and paranoia. 

Though its more than seven years since I read this book I still recall some of the first scenes which described the hallucinations Norman experiences when he tries to sleep. The worst are shimmering silvery creatures that he sees crawling towards him from the skirting boards in his bedroom.

Bernice Rubens hailed from Cardiff, the capital city of Wales (thought I’d just slip in that patriotic bit of info). Though highly regarded in the seventies, she’s largely forgotten about now, much like the author of my third title: fellow Booker winning author Stanley Middleton. 

holidayMiddleton wrote 44 novels before his death in 2009. You’ll have a hard job finding any of them in bookshops today which is a terrific shame.

Holiday, his Booker winner takes place largely in the head of Edwin Fisher, a university teacher in his mid-30s, who has taken a solitary holiday in an east-coast resort town after the collapse of his marriage.  Like so many people in the early 1970s, he stays in a boarding house. If you want a glimpse of how the Brits used to holiday before the advent of the package tour to Spain, this would be a great book to read.

LarkinlandMention of boarding houses takes me to Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch. This novel is a brilliant evocation of Hull in the period when the poet Phillip Larkin was head librarian for the university. Tulloch’s central character, Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) arrives at the library to begin a new job, moving into digs run by Miss Glendenning, occupying a tiny room furnished with narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper.  Miss Glendenning believes firmly in “keeping up appearances”, running her establishment with strict rules about mealtimes though she seems blissfully unaware that some of her tenants are not all that fine and upstanding.

paying_guestsMiss Glendenning is typical of the predicament experienced by many middle class women in post war Britain, particularly those whose husbands had died in the conflict.

In book number four of my chain, Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests,  we encounter one such genteel household whose members are driven by necessity to let out rooms in their over-large house. Widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances didn’t bargain on having to share their home with a working class couple. They find the Barbers rather gaudy and lacking in the finesse that they are accustomed to within their own circle of acquaintances.  But Frances finds her life becoming dangerously entwined with that of the Barbers.

exposureThe Paying Guests is a novel about actions, taken in the spirit of friendship, that have far reaching consequences. 

For my fifth book in the chain I’m moving forward a few years to the time of the Cold War, a period when your friend, neighbour, or partner, could turn out to be a spy.  In Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, suspicion falls on the father of a rather ordinary middle class family, living in an ordinary terraced house. All he did was to help a friend, but now he is under arrest. To escape public attention and humiliation his wife Lily spirits the children to a small village on the English coast. But before she leaves, she buries a briefcase, believing that she is protecting her family. What she will learn is that no one is immune from betrayal or the devastating consequences of exposure.

Trains are a recurring theme in Exposure. The novel opens with a man taking a train to a home he’s never been in before, Lily, experiences fear every time she hears the whistle because it brings up a past that she has hidden while for her husband, the sound makes him think of escape.

La bete humaineLet’s stick with novels in which trains play a key role for the last link in my chain. I could easily have chosen Anna Karenina or Murder on the Orient Express, but I’m going with. Emile Zola’s La Bête Humaine. (The Human Beast). This contains a brilliant realisation of the world of railways and railwaymen, with a high octane scene involving a runaway train. But it’s also a novel which depicts uncontrollable passion, leading to murderous intentions,   – a fitting way I thought to end a chain that began with passion, although one hopes that a bout in the boxing ring doesn’t result in death.

WWWednesday 30 January, 2019

Many weeks have past since the last time I did a post for WWWednesday which is hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words . I thought this year I would try to do at least one a month – and now here we are at the end of January and I’m scrabbling to do this. Ah well, good intentions do have a habit of disappearing….

What are you currently reading? 

 

I picked up an advance copy of To Catch A Killer at the Orion On Tour event in Cardiff last November. This is part of my project to read more authors from Wales.

Emma Kavanagh comes from South Wales – the one in the UK, not the upstart “New” South Wales which is on the other side of the world.  She is a former police and military psychologist who provides training to police and branches of the armed forces across the UK and Europe. Given her background it’s not surprising that To Catch A Killer is a psychological crime thriller. It features a woman police sergeant newly back in post after a fire at her home from which she was lucky to emerge alive, although with facial disfiguration. Now she is on the trail of the killer of an attractive, well-dressed woman found with her throat slashed in a London park.

This is a very fast-paced novel, with plenty of twists and turns and a central figure who is struggling to deal with the trauma of the fire. I hadn’t come across Emma Kavanagh’s work previously but on the evidence of just this novel, she is a name to watch for the future.

 

I’m also dipping into  The Clever Guts Diet by Dr Michael Mosely (fascinating once you get over the yucky bits) and Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by J Mark G Williams. I’ve tried about half a dozen books on mindfulness in recent months and this one is the best so far. Very clear, very practical, with a commendable absence of hippy drippy stuff.

What did you recently finish reading? Trick by Domenico Starnone

Trick was one of the books I received through my subscription last year to the Asympote Book Club, most of which I never got around to reading.

This is a short but very compelling story of an elderly illustrator asked to look after his rather precocious four-year-old grandson for a few days.

Don’t imagine however this is a warm, family bonding kind of story. The relationship between these two people is one based on a battle for control. Grand-dad needs physical and mental space in which to work and complete his latest commission with a publisher is breathing down his neck. The boy just wants to play. In their tussle, the old man begins to question his abilities as an artist.

 

 

 

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

Always a tough question. This month it’s even more challenging because I’m preparing for an extended holiday which involves multiple long flights. I’m not keen to use up my luggage allowance with hefty books so am planning to take a maximum of 4 paperbacks that I’ll be happy to discard mid trip. I should add that I’ve also been making sure I have plenty of e-books available….

I need variety. Maybe one crime novel, maybe one ‘classic’ although some of those on my owned-but-unread shelves are rather bulky. I have six days to make up my mind. Based on previous experience the selections are going to change multiple times before the case is zipped for the last time.

How do you decide what books to take with you on a trip? Any recommendations for a strategy to help me make decisions.

Let’s Talk About Bookshops

We’re all book lovers here, right? And (other than the book itself) what is the greatest part of going shopping for books?

The bookshop itself.

50826157_569827396761301_6357881221170593792_nWe all love that particular book scent, yes? A bookshop can’t help but smell that way! Seriously though, if Jo Malone were to release a ‘Bookshop’ fragrance, I would happily buy up a couple of candles. Just think of all of the choices – where do you start?! Crime, romance, autobiography, travel, history, politics, the list can go on and on.

You could wander around for hours, piling as many tomes up in your arms as you possibly can, before you inevitably manage to drop one, and then the rest of them as you try and collect up the first. It’s a space in which you can travel around the world, insert yourself in fantastical lands, fanciful plots, or daring real-life escapades, through the power of writing and imagination. Isn’t it just the best?

Perhaps this is a romanticised image.

Actually, there isn’t really a ‘perhaps’ about it, is there. Of course this is wildly romanticised. This is the image created for us by Richard Curtis in Notting Hill. This is the fantasy that we create for ourselves, based on the idealised nostalgia all of us book lovers innately feel. I have a friend who has just got engaged to a man she met in a tiny independent bookshop – in my mind, that’s the dream.

I moved to Kingston-upon-Thames, on the outskirts of London, in late September last year. It wasn’t a town I was at all familiar with before the move, so it took a few weeks of getting incredibly lost every time I went in to the centre before I really started to get my bearings, and discover what the town had to offer. And there’s one thing it certainly doesn’t have to offer – bookshops. (It’s also seriously lacking any decent bars, but that’s a separate issue)

The only bookshop in the town centre was Waterstones – note that I say ‘was’.

I’ve grown up around Cheltenham and the Cotswolds, where independent bookshops stacked high with literary choices for everyone can be found around every street corner. I went to the University of York – if you know the city centre at all, you’ll know that the options for specialist, independent and vintage bookshops are second to none. (If anyone needs any recommendations, Fossgate Books is brilliant, with a phenomenal selection, and a fantastic proprietor who will have a recommendation whatever your taste – he even found my Giles-collector Father a rare Giles jigsaw!)

I was definitely spoilt for choice before now. And don’t get me wrong, I really like Waterstones. In the last few years, under new leadership, the environment in their stores has become incredibly warm and inviting, almost making you forget the monopoly that they now have over reading in the UK.

But this is where I encounter my current problem with Kingston’s lack of bookshops – the Waterstones in the town centre has recently closed, and without warning. A new cinema and development is being built above space, and the shop itself will have a complete refurbishment. But it’s now not supposed to open until Autumn. That’s nine months with no local bookshop.

I overheard a shopping centre security guard explain this to a family with young children, and he did not seem to be able to comprehend why the children looked so disappointed at the fact they would be unable to browse through the shelves – but I did. He emphasised that there was another Waterstones in the next town, if they really had to go.

Now admittedly, I can be at Waterloo within half an hour, so personally it’s not as if I don’t have any options. Hatchards is brilliant after all, and there is a Foyles within Waterloo Station itself. But is anybody else concerned by this? Why are we diminishing the worth of a bookshop?

I don’t need another cinema, or any more restaurants to choose from. But I do need a good bookshop. Now if I’m lucky, a batch of independents will spring up in the absence of Waterstones, but the likelihood of that if frankly rather slim. I can but hope!

If anyone has any recommendations for good bookshops, leave them down below – I’m willing to make a road trip!

This list makes for some great inspiration.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin #bookreview

my brilliant careerEvery time I picked up my copy of My Brilliant Career, instead of delving straight into the narrative, I found myself simply staring at the cover image.  That girl haunted me. At times it felt as if she was glaring at me, almost daring me to judge her behaviour and her attitudes.  Other times it seemed more that she was asking me a question, inviting a response.

Maybe I’m making far too much of this but I certainly found the image mesmerising. The boldness of the girl’s look combined with her wild, unkempt appearance also perfectly matched the character of the protagonist created by Miles Franklin, Sybylla Melvyn.

Hers is a passionate nature, a force that will not be suppressed or controlled and in whom ambition is ablaze. Sybylla believes she is destined for “a brilliant career”, one that will offer more than a life rearing cattle and sheep. Nor does she envisage a life shackled in marriage. Marriage to her is a degradation, a result of social laws arranged so that it’s “a woman’s only sphere” in which she would have to suppress her inherent nature. . Not that any man would want someone “so very plain” and “as ugly” as her, she reasons. But she reckons without the wealthy young landowner Harry Beecham. He does want her for his wife.

Sybylla however is a wilful girl, “utterly different” to other girls her age and instead of viewing  him as a highly attractive partner, she leads him a merry dance.  Even as the novel comes to an end Miles Franklin keeps us guessing whether Sybylla will succumb to or hold out for her dreams of a life as a writer.

The tension between vocation and marriage as potential exit routes out of the stagnation of a rural life, forms the dramatic heart of My Brilliant Career. Sybylla’s intellectual and artistic talents are stifled in the environment of Possum where her father ekes out a living and his wife grows bitter and complaining.  Sent to live temporarily with her grandmother, Sybylla delights in the more refined atmosphere. It brings her “three things for which [she] had been starving”: good taste, music, and, above all, books.

But the idyll doesn’t last.

Drought exacerbates the problems created by her father’s excessive drinking habits and his poor business decisions. To pay off the family debt, Sybylla is despatched to work as governess and housekeeper for a family to whom her father owes money.  Among this illiterate farmer’s family, denied intellectual and creative stimulus and aghast at the filth of their home, she suffers a breakdown.

There are many enjoyable elements in this book but chief among them is Sybylla herself. She’s a sharp-witted, sharp-eyed narrator who doesn’t hold back from highlighting the weaknesses and faults of those around her. She views her mother scornfully because she has  “no ambitions or aspirations not capable of being turned into cash value.” Her father comes in for equally harsh treatment for his drunkenness and disregard for his family’s welfare.

But she’s also an irritating girl, too absorbed and self-pitying to recognise other people’s emotions. The kind of girl who, when you hear her lash out at poor Harry Beecham, you think she deserves some of the knocks that come her way.

I also loved Franklin’s descriptions of the Australian landscape. It’s a very honest portrayal, showing both its beauty and its unforgiving harshness when the rains fail, the land shrivels and livelihoods are endangered. Sybylla alternately loves the “mighty bush” and loathed.

My Brilliant Career isn’t without its faults. Sybylla has a tendency to get on her soap box , resulting in prose that sounds more like pamphleteering than how a young girl would actually express herself. But given this was Miles Franklin’s debut novel and it was written when she was 21 years old, primarily to entertain her friends, I think I can forgive her the occasional over-inflated, melodramatic passage.

 

About this book

My Brilliant Career was published in 1901 under the pen-name of  Miles Franklin (real name of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin).  In her introduction she said the book was “all about myself…. I make no apologies for being egotistical. In this particular I attempt an improvement on other autobiographies.” She describes it as not a novel, but simply a yarn about a life of “long toil-laden days with its agonising monotony, narrowness, and absolute uncongeniality.”

It was hugely successful, but Franklin was upset that contemporary readers believed it to be closely based on her own life and that of families in her locality. She ordered it to be withdrawn from publication until after her death.  It was revived in the 1960s, and underwent a critical evaluation, particularly in the light of the feminist critique. Today it is viewed as a key text within the Australian literary canon.

For an assessment of the key themes of the novel, take a look at the critical essay by  Susan K. Martin at Reading Australia.

 

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell

i am i amI Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is an astonishing memoir, a celebration of the tenacity for which we cling to life while on the edge of death.

It chronicles 17 occasions when Maggie O’Farrell came close to death and how those experiences have shaped her outlook on life and her attitude towards her children.

Her close encounters with death began with the sudden onset of viral encephalitis at eight years old. It rendered her incapable of speech and robbed her of the ability to walk. Medical experts put her chances of full recovery at next to nothing. But they had not reckoned with this girl’s determination to beat the odds.

O’Farrell reflects that “a near-death experience changes you for ever: you come back from the brink altered, wiser, sadder”. And yet the evidence of this book speaks to the contrary. In the middle of a crisis, she often berates herself for having not thought more carefully about her actions. Was it wise, she wonders in hindsight,  to have taken that evening walk around a remote late in Chile (she was seized from behind by a thief who presses a machete against her throat)? Why had she trusted the holiday maker and tried to wade out to a diving platform in the Indian Ocean with her young son ( a non swimmer)? Why had she been the one to leap off a harbour wall into the sea as a teenager?

What drives her actions is often her intense desire for freedom: to break free from all bonds.

It is an urge so strong, so all-encompassing that it overwhelms everything else. I cannot stand my life as it is. I cannot stand to be here, in this town, in this school. I have to get away.

In her quest for that freedom, O’Farrell becomes a risk taker. It’s as if, having survived once, she is determined forever after to stick two fingers up to death. To face it down.

Her life is one crammed to the brim with accidents, illness and frighteningly close calls. They include a haemorrhage during a too-long delayed cesarean section, amoebic dysentery picked up on holiday in China, a close encounter with a blindfolded circus knife-thrower, and a narrow escape from a murderer .

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is consequently built upon drama, piling one hair-raising moment on another. On a walk up a mountain she escapes from a murderer by prattling on about ducks; on a flight to Hong Kong the plane plummets; on holiday in France she fumbles desperately for the door lock when two strange men approach the car in which she is feeding her new born baby.

This book could easily have become little more than a litany of episodes but O’Farrell has this knack of balancing the drama with reflection as she looks to make sense of her extraordinary life.

It’s one in which she has had cause to be thankful for the vast array of medical practitioners she has encountered over the years. Mostly she recalls their kindnesses: the unknown man who held her hand while surgeons battled to save her life in a theatre awash with her blood. She never saw him again but recalls even now the touch of his hand. Or the nurse who refused to leave the consulting room where the young Maggie O’Farrell was seeing a pediatric specialist. Decades later she hears he has been revealed as a paedophile.

Her life continues to involve “a fair amount of sprinting along hospital corridors” but now it’s her daughter that requires emergency medical treatment. Born with a severe immune disorder this child can have between 12 and 15 severe anaphylactic shocks a year.  It means O’Farrell and her husband are constantly on the alert for any encounter that could trigger a reaction.

It’s this final section of the book that I found the most powerfull and compelling. It’s brim full of the anxiety she felt as a young mum faced with a small child who is covered head to toe in burning, itching, bleeding eczema. She shares her feelings of desolation and helplessness and how the desire to protect her daughter is overwhelming.

Ulimately this isn’t a book about death or danger. It’s about life and love. Though O’Farrell concedes that our life on life is fragile:

We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall.

her book is really a message to her daughter that the human spirit is a resilient one. It can  meet with danger and endure trauma. And can still bounce back.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death is an intense reading experience. But it’s one that is the highlight of my year so far.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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