The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths

the-chalk-pitIt’s risky to begin reading a series part way through its run. I knew when I opted for The Chalk Pit, the ninth in the Dr Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths, that I’d be missing a lot of the background details about the characters and their relationships. But the premise of a crime/mystery series whose central character is a forensic archaeologist, seemed rather different so I was willing to take the chance that I could get up to speed fairly quickly without having to go right back to book one.

The publishers Quercus are clearly aware that this could be an issue since they provided a handy ‘who’s who’ at the back of the book.  This wasn’t of much help to me however since, by the time I discovered the guide, I had already finished reading the novel. Not that it proved a problem because  within the first few chapters Elly Griffiths succinctly provided everything I needed to know about Dr Galloway and her tangled relationship with Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson. The two have worked together on several cases but they have an even closer connection – they have a six-year-old daughter though Harry still lives with his wife.

In The Chalk Pit, the two are thrown together once more when Ruth is called in when some bones are discovered in a tunnel under the city of Norwich. They look as if they’ve been there for hundreds of years but there’s something odd about them – they might have been boiled, a practice Ruth knows is associated with cannibalism. Harry meanwhile is wrestling with his own mystery – who has killed two homeless men who live on the streets of Norwich? And is this somehow connected with the disappearance of a female rough sleeper? His team don’t have a lot to go on other than the rather strange remark that she had ‘gone underground’. Progress is slow which doesn’t please the new (female) Superintendent who wants Harry focused on higher priority matters instead of wasting time on this investigation. The pressure mounts further when two other women go missing.

Two elements of this book were disappointing. One was the pace at which the plot progressed. Books are like cheese in my view – they need time to mature. This one felt rather rushed. Just when I was having my imagination fired up with the idea of homeless people forming a new community to live in old chalk pits underneath the city of Norwich, Ruth announces she knows the identity of the killer. From there we get a bit of rushing around the city and then the killer is in custody and it was all over. I could happily have spent more time exploring the underground world. The second disappointment was that

the-guildhall-norwich

The fifteenth-century Guildhall in Norwich, below which bones are discovered.

we didn’t get to experience Ruth at work as much as I would have expected. Yes she examines the bones and sends them off for various types of analysis and has a few conversations about the history of chalk pits and different underground societies around the world. But I wanted more of this – and less about her daughter and their life together in a remote seaside cottage.

Where The Chalk Pit really scored highly for me was in the way it treats the issue of homelessness. Elly Griffiths avoids the easy option of portraying the street dwellers as ‘salt-of-the-earth’ type figures who are ranged against a society that doesn’t care. Instead she shows them as people who have sadness in their lives but also character flaws that led them to nights in doorways.

This nuanced handling comes through also in the way that the police officers respond to these homeless people. Early on in the novel one of the street dwellers, a guy nicknamed  “Aftershave Eddy’ by police who have experienced his less than fragrant body odour, is found dead on the steps of the police station. Harry castigates officers who had walked passed the man, assuming he was asleep though he had a knife in his chest.  The deliberate disregard is however modified once the investigation is underway however and officers come fact to face with the reality of the world of the homeless. One female detective, visiting a day shelter remarks:

The homeless are like the remnants of a long-forgotten army, still dressed in their ragged uniforms reminding their more-fortunate neighbours that there is a battlefield out there, a place of violence and fear and dread.

Through their investigations the officers come to see these figures as human beings who had a life before they took to the streets. They learn how small gestures  such as talking about football or playing a game of chess can make a difference in helping a homeless person feel part of society. Unfortunately the majority attitude is to treat street dwellers as an inconvenience. “Nobody cares about the homeless,” one man tells a detective. “They just want us to go away so they don’t have to see us and feel guilty.” Faced with that reaction, it’s understandable why, for some of the characters in this novel, life underground  is far more attractive than an existence above.

Footnotes

The Book: The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths was published in February 2017 by Quercus . itis the ninth in the Dr Ruth Galloway series which began in 2010 with The Crossing Places.

The Author: Elly Griffiths is the pen name of Domenica de Rosa. She was inspired to write the Dr Ruth Galloway series by her husband who swapped his career in the City for a job as an archaeologist. Discover more about Elly Griffiths on her website.

Why I read this book: Although I don’t read a huge amount of crime, I’m often on the look out for a novel in the genre that is slightly different from the usual fare. I’ve never read anything featuring a forensic archaeologist and in fact had little idea what that job could entail – I thought this book could enlighten me. Seems like I will need to read some of the earlier titles in order to be further enlightened. I received a copy from the publishers via Net Galley in return for an honest review

 

 

Snapshot March 2017

 

reading-snapshot-march-2017

Another month further into the year and time for another snapshot of my reading life. March 1 marks the beginning of Spring in the northern hemisphere and for once nature is in tune with the calendar – daffodils are in bloom in the garden though the squirrels seem to have snaffled most of the crocus bulbs I planted. Tulip leaves are also pushing up through the earth heralding the pleasure to come. My recovery from surgery is also going well – so plenty to celebrate this month.

 

Reading

As I expected,  being unable to do much other than vegetate on the sofa while the wounds healed, meant I was able to do fair amount of reading in the past few weeks. On March 1 itself I was half way through Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope. It’s the third book in the Chronicles of Barchester series and though it doesn’t have my three favourite characters from the first two – Mrs Proudie, the Bishop’s Wife, Septimus Harding and the most magnificent of all, the chaplain Mr Obadiah Slope – it does have a rather delicious character in the shape of the Squire’s wife. Where the first two books, The Warden and Barchester Towers, focused on the dealings of the clergy, Dr Thorne takes us into the world of the gentry with their political ambitions and concerns to maintain their status in society. Dr Thorne is a book I’ve long planned to read as part of my Classics Club project and it didn’t disappoint.

State of my personal library

exquisite-senseOne 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 thought it was 299 but then discovered my list of ebooks was incorrect) and a plan to hold off from adding to that number for the first six months of the year. I’m amazed that I’ve been able to keep to this plan – largely down to my strategy of immediately deleting from my in box any emails from publishers about new titles and from booksellers about special offers.  I won An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful by J David Simons in a giveaway hosted by Lizzy at https://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/. Lizzy’s review is here.

lastgodofindochine_v3Then I was sorely tempted when asked if I would review The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer that was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize (“The Booker of Asia”).  It’s a historical drama combining two storylines separated by six centuries; one story is set in Cambodia in 1294 during the last days of Khmer imperial glory and the other in 1921 during the period of French colonial rule. Here is the opening paragraph:

“Farther India”, 1861 (Laos, Indochina).
 
It was hard to believe the human body could contain so much water, and yet, there it all was. Phrai twisted the cloth and watched it plop in dull patters on the ground, the pocked earth sponging up sound as well. Sweat had been seeping out his employer for weeks, and he had been at the dying man’s side all the while, pouring fresh water back into his mouth with the devotion of a nun. Phrai imagined nearly half the man had been absorbed and squeezed from these rags, creating small pools just outside the hut. In another part of the world, that half of him would evaporate out of existence, but here it could not; the thick air held eternity at bay.

So with two additions to my collection but five read, I ended February with 311 books remaining in what I call ‘my personal library’.

Wishing for…

The collection of owned-but-unread books might be on the downward trend but the same can’t be said for my wishlist in Goodreads. In February I added The Long Dry by Cynan Jones, I Refuse by the Norwegian author Per Petterson plus twelve titles from the Greatest Books from Wales list that I posted a few days ago. I’m hoping I can get to end of June before I start buying any of these but it’s good to dream…..

On the reading horizon…

March is Reading Ireland month, hosted by 746books.com which has given me a good impetus to dig out the Ireland-related books from my shelves. Of the titles I found I’m probably gong to begin with John Banville’s Ancient Light. After that I will see where my mood takes me – I’ve discovered that planning too far ahead doesn’t work well for me. Making a list is good fun but the minute I have to start reading it, my enthusiasm wanes. I much prefer the serendipitous approach.

 

From football terrace to coal disaster [#6Degrees]

fever-pitch

Before he became Mr Darcy, Colin Firth was seen on the football terraces.

We begin this month’s Six Degrees of Separation chain (#6Degrees)  with Fever Pitch, a 1992 debut book by the British author Nick Hornby in which he told the story of his relationship with football, and in particular with one club – Arsenal. The book was a huge success not surprisingly, football being almost a religion for a large part of the British population, and went on to become a successful film.

I’ve never read it. While I’ve watched a few matches in the past and can appreciate the excitement, I have little interest in the niceties of the sport. I despair enough when I hear the amateur pundits in the pub talk about a recent match so the idea of reading a book structured chronologically around specific matches fills me with horror. Definitely not a book that will be on my wishlist.

Moving swiftly on however, the first book in my chain maintains the connection to sport.

1The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a short story by Alan Sillitoe that was published as part of a collection of the same name that came out in 1959. Its protagonist is a teenager who comes from a poor family in a working class area of Nottingham in England. His prospects are bleak. Sentenced to time in a young offenders institute he takes up long-distance running – his prowess brings him to the attention of the institution’s ambitious governor. This is a novel about rebellious youth and a refusal to conform. It’s gritty realism is compelling.

Sillitoe was one of the so-called “angry young men” – a group of mostly working and middle class playwrights and novelists prominent in the 1950s that were united by their disillusionment with traditional British society. Sillitoe disliked the label as did most of the other writers to whom it was applied, such as John Osborne, particularly when their work became more divergent in style and theme.

2The angry young men also included John Braine whose novel Room at the Top provides me with my second link. Braine was a Yorkshireman by birth who left school at the age of 16 to work in variously as a shop assistant, factory hand and librarian before turning his hand to writing.  Like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Room at the Top provides a realistic portrayal of life in a working class community. It’s central character is Joe Lampton, an ambitious young man of humble origins who is determined to make something of himself and leave behind former acquaintances who he despises for their lack of life and character. But his complex relationship with two women shows he is a man of dubious morality. By the end of the novel, he is forced to consider the question of his responsibility for a tragic event. This is a novel which deals brilliantly with questions of morality and social mobility.

3My third link comes from another writer whose work is characterised by a social ‘edginess’. Stan Barstow wrote A Kind of Loving (1960) as  the first part of a trilogy featuring Vic Brown, a young  man from Yorkshire who is slowly inching his way up from his working class roots through a white-collar job. Vic finds himself trapped when his girlfriend becomes pregnant and they are forced, by the social rules of the time, into marrying. A housing shortage in northern England means they have to live with Ingrid’s domineering mother which further cramps Vic’s style.  This is a novel very much of its time which deals with ambition, consequences and compromises.

4

Social realism of course was not the exclusive purview of male writers. Almost a century before the angry young men made their mark, Elizabeth Gaskell  turned her attention to the brutality of life in the industrialised towns of northern England. My fourth link in the chain is one of her best known novels, North and South. Set in Manchester (Gaskell novel calls it  Milton) the novel looks at the troubled relationship between workers and and mill owners as seen through the eyes of one woman, the clergyman’s daughter Margaret Hale. Forced to move north from her childhood home in the leafy south of England, Margaret’s senses and sensibilities are shocked by the poverty and suffering she witnesses. It’s fair to say that Charles Dickens, Gaskell’s contemporary, covered some of the same issues but I preferred the more nuanced approach adopted by Gaskell – while she detailed the social misery experienced in the slum dwellings of the workers, she balanced this by showing that not all mill owners were oblivious to the suffering of their workers.   If all you know of Gaskell is her Cranford novels, you may be as surprised by North and South as I was when I read it about five years ago (see my review here).  

5Let stick with books set in the industrial heartland of the UK as we move onto number 5 in the chain.  The Stars Look Down is a 1935 novel by A. J. Cronin which takes place in a coal mining community in Northumberland. It traces various injustices experienced by its inhabitants over a period from just before World War 1 until the 1930s. Cronin conveys his theme through three principal figures who represent different points of view: one is a miner’s son who follows a political career to try and improve the life of people around him , the second is a miner who goes into business but is accused of being a war profiteer, and the third is the son of an unscrupulous colliery owner. Cronin’s story includes a number of pivotal moments which force these people, and the community to question its values. Like Gaskell he doesn’t come down unequivocally on one side or another – broadly you can see his sympathies lie with the workers but he also shows a recognition that some of the mine owners can be decent human beings.

6 I can’t get to the end of this chain and ignore fiction written about social conditions in my own part of the world – Wales. So for my final choice I’m selecting a novel that was one of the most highly talked about among my parent’s generation.  How Green Was My Valley is a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn about the Morgan family whose male members all earn their living in the dangerous world of coal mining.  It’s a story told by one of of the sons, Huw, whose academic ability sets him apart from his brothers and gives him a chance to build a future away from the mines. This is a family saga so we get the usual quota of thwarted love affairs, sibling rivalry etc but its the background of the harsh working conditions experienced by this family (and their neighbours) and their total dependancy on the mines, that provide the main interest. Cronin claimed he based the book on his personal experience though this was hotly disputed. Nevertheless the world he depicts is one my parents recognised and felt was authentic, from crippling strikes that caused hunger and set father against son, to questions about whether mine owners compromised safety in the interests of cost cutting and, inevitably to a disaster underground. The title of the book is a recognition that while coal mining brought jobs it also turned the green hillsides into black mountains, a situation that lasted well into my adult years.

Terraced houses, South Wales

Terraced houses, South Wales

And there we must end this chain. We’ve come a long way from the terraces of a London football club, travelling via northern England to Wales, encountering social disruption, class warfare and (mercifully) not much sport……I didn’t think I would be able to link book number six in the chain back to Fever Pitch but just as I was about to press ‘publish’ I had one of those light bulb moments. Fever Pitch is set on the terraces of various football clubs. Much of the action of How Green was My Valley takes places within the terraced houses of the South Wales valleys. How about that for a connection???

Irish authors call the tune

reading-ireland-2017It’s March and time for Ireland Reading month hosted by Cathy at 746.com. Full details of the activities Cathy has up her sleeve can be found via the announcement post  We Celts need to stick together so I’ll be joining in as much as possible.

But what to read is the question – Cathy has put a list of 100 Irish Novels as a good starting point for anyone unsure where to begin. For my own preparations I delved into my personal library at the weekend and came up with six options.

  • The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
  • Ancient Light by John Banville
  • The Absolutionist by John Boyne
  • Good Behaviour by Molly Keane
  • The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch
  • Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

It’s unlikely I’ll read more than two before the month given some other commitments.On of those is likely to be Ancient Light by John Banville which I bought as a signed copy after hearing him speak at the Hay Book Festival about three years ago. I loved the lyricism of his Booker Prize winning novel The Sea so I’m hoping Ancient Light will deliver more of the same.  The synopsis sounds promising:

… a brilliant, profoundly moving new novel about an actor in the twilight of his life and his career: a meditation on love and loss, and on the inscrutable immediacy of the past in our present lives.

I’m not going to decide in advance on my second choice yet – maybe it’s time to give Molly Keane another try – I’ve read only one by her so far (Devoted Ladies under her pen name of M. J Farrell)  – but then I’ve been meaning to get around to The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney ever since it won the Bailey’s prize in 2016. The chairman of the judges described it as “a superbly original, compassionate novel that delivers insights into the very darkest of lives through humour and skilful storytelling.”  Skilfull storytelling sounds just the ticket..

Are any of you planning to join Reading Ireland month – if so what are you planning to read? In the meantime, I shall raise my glass of Guinness and wish you “Sláinte” (good health).

 

The Greatest Novels from Wales?

great-welsh-novelsToday, March 1, marks St David’s Day in Wales, the date when people of Welsh origin celebrate the life of our patron saint, St David, and Welsh culture in general. Today you can expect to see many people walking around with a daffodil or leek (both national emblems) pinned to their clothes. Schools often mark the event with an assembly during which the children sing traditional Welsh songs though the custom of wearing the traditional costume seems largely to be dying out.

I thought I would mark the occasion by taking a look at a question which is doing the rounds among the literary circle here.  In 2014 the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers the question: Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?. Not an easy question to answer – probably as difficult as defining The Great American Novel. But they’ve persisted, asking contributors for their recommendations and publishing articles on what are considered to be the finest literary works in the history of wales. 

Below is the list of nominations – the links point to an essay on the Wales Arts Review. Of these titles the most famous name is that of Roald Dahl though probably Fantastic Mr Fox wouldn’t be considered his most outstanding work. I’ve read just two of these novels: On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin which I thought was stunning and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis which I read as part of my Booker Prize project and enjoyed in part.  I’ve heard of some of the other writers even if I’ve not experienced their works personally – people like Diana Wynne Jones, Emyr Humphries and Lewis Jones. But others are complete mysteries. I’ll explore some of these as part of my plan to read more literature from my home country – you can see some of what I’ve read to date over on my Authors from Wales page. 

Greatest Welsh Novel Contenders

  1. The Valley, The City, The Village by Glyn Jones
  2. Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse
  3. The Withered Root by Rhys Davies
  4. On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
  5. Cwmardy & We Live by Lewis Jones
  6. Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds
  7. Gold by Dan Rhodes
  8. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
  9. The Genre of Silence by Duncan Bush
  10. The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price
  11. So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry
  12. The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
  13. Downriver by Iain Sinclair
  14. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
  15. The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi
  16. In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl by Rachel Trezise
  17. Awakening by Stevie Davies
  18. Un Nos Ola Leuad by Caradog Prichard   (translates as One Moonlit Night)
  19. Shifts by Christopher Meredith
  20. Fantastic Mr Fox by Roald Dahl
  21. Submarine by Joe Dunthorne
  22. A Toy Epic by Emyr Humphreys
  23. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The winner, chosen by a panel of literary experts and authors and a public poll, was Un Nos Ola Leuad (One Moonlit Night) by Caradog Prichard – the only Welsh language novel to be nominated. Published in 1961, One Moonlit Night is the story of a young man’s education and growth to adult hood in the slate mining area of north west Wales – Caradog Prichard’s home territory. Announcing the result of the poll, one of the panel members compared the novel to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in its use of magical realism.

Further resources

Announcement of The Greatest Welsh Novel

Description of One Moonlit Night by Publishers Weekly

Authors from Wales page on booker.com

Wales Arts Review

 

 

 

 

 

Booker Prize Project – the end in sight

Booker prize finish line

Approaching the finishing line

Five years ago I embarked on a project to read all the Booker Prize winners since the inception of the prize in 1969. I’d already read a number of them like The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. Though I didn’t set myself any deadline I thought, with a little effort, I’d be done in two years. Well clearly that never happened. I am however in the homeward straight now with just 11 titles remaining to be read. Until now I’ve purposefully avoided reading the winners in date order – and I don’t plan to do that for the final batch. I am however pontificating whether to reserve to the very end, one book that has been universally praised so I end on a high note.

Here’s what I have still to read: (I’m discounting the 2016 winner since I have to stop somewhere).

Winners 21st century 

2015A History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)
2003 – Vernon God Little (D.B. C Pierre)
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey)

Winners 20th century 
1997 – The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
1992 – Sacred Hunger (Barry Unsworth)
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
1972 – G. (John Berger)

 The ones I am least looking forward to are  How Late It Was, How Late  by James Kelman and  A History of Seven Killings by Marlon James purely because contain a high quota of local dialect – working class Scottish dialect in the case of Kelman and Jamaican dialect in the case of Marlon James).

My question to you good people is – what should I read next? Of the remaining 11 titles there is nothing that is really calling out strongly ‘read me next’. I’m tempted by The Finkler Question since I dipped into it last year and enjoyed what I found (though I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea). I also embarked on The Conservationist but found that hard to get into so put to one side for now.

Out of my remaining list are there any you would recommend? Anything you’ve read that was a stand out novel for you? Conversely are there any on this list that you’d suggest leaving until last?

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively [Booker prize]

Egypt. Cairo - Giza. General view of pyramids

In Penelope Lively’s Booker-prize winning Moon Tiger, an elderly woman lies dying in a hospital somewhere in the UK.  As the nursing staff suspect from her rambling utterances, she is no ordinary woman. She is Claudia Hampton, an esteemed war journalist during World War II who went on to become a published historian. Now lying on her bed she decides to construct in her head a history of the world and at the same time her own history.

The question immediately confronting her is how best to tell this story. Claudia is clear that her readers should not expect a linear narrative  nor to encounter just one Claudia. “I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water,” she declares. “The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and re-shuffled, there is no sequence, everything happens at once.”

This statement becomes a metaphor for the way Penelope Lively constructs her own narrative. Instead of a linear progression we get a kind of fragmented monologue from Claudia (the results of her medication or her ageing mind?) interposed with the comments of an omniscient narrator. Some episodes are relayed multiple times from the – often conflicting – viewpoints of different people who are reaching into their own memories. Claudia – and hence Penelope Lively – orchestrate these people as if they were providing stage directions for a set of characters in a play.

Mother, Gordon, Sylvia, Jasper, Lisa. Mother will drop out before long, retiring gracefully and with minimum fuss after an illness in 1962. Others as yet unnamed will come and go. Some more than others; one above all. In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.

Females do in fact play second fiddle to the male characters in Moon Tiger. For this is a story that revolves around Claudia’s relationship with three men: her brother Gordon against whom she competes intellectually; her first lover Jasper by whom she bears a child; and Tom, a British tank commander she meets and falls in love with in Egypt while reporting on Rommel’s desert campaign. Their time together is confined to one weekend during Tom’s leave from the front but it is enough for them to begin to make plans for the future, for marriage and children. Shortly afterwards Claudia learns of Tom’s death during the Battle of El Amamein. Now, after many decades, Claudia vividly recalls details of this precious weekend, the ring he bought her and the Moon Tiger mosquito coil that sent coils of smoke into the night as they lay in bed on their last night together.

Lively takes two risks with this novel. First of all she chooses as her protagonist a character who it is difficult to like.  Claudia is an opinionated, selfish, competitive, headstrong woman who doesn’t seem to feel any strong emotional attachment to her daughter Lisa, leaving her in the hands of her grandmother while she goes off on her reporting assignments. She also has a questionable relationship with her brother that might disturb some people. But then we get Lively’s inventive form of story-telling where the narrative seems to start, stop, rewind and then fast forward.  It’s a tricky technique to get right. It makes for a difficult to understand opening chapter compounded by the fact we don’t know the characters being mentioned. But once Lively gets into her stride, the result is rather wonderful. And she succeeds, against the odds, in providing a story laden with atmosphere and poignancy (nowhere more so than in the final few pages).

It’s a novel that captivated me with its exploration of the difficulties of producing a history even if it is one’s own; of sifting through and trying to reconcile memories with facts.  I’m sure it’s one that will withstand a second reading but in the meantime I’m left with an abiding image of an old woman in bed watching darkness fall on bare branches outside her room… and remembering.

Footnotes

The Book: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively was first published by Andre Deutsch in 1987. My paperback edition was published by Penguin in 2010. It won the Booker Prize in that year against competition from Iris Murdoch and Chinua Achebe.  A recording of Penelope Lively talking about Moon Tiger is available as a podcast from the BBC World Book Club via this link. 

The Author: Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt though moved to England to take up a place at Oxford University. She was twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize with her first novel The Road to Lichfield in 1977 and then According to Mark in 1994.

Why I read this book: It is part of my Booker Prize project 

 

 

 

Peter Pan by J.M Barrie: darkness beneath the gaiety

peter-pan-representations

Representations of Peter Pan over the decades

With its pirates and fairies, fights and flights, it’s not surprising that Peter Pan has long been a popular play to mark the Christmas season. The playful and adventurous spirit of the title character have captured the imagination since the play was first performed in 1904.  The various film versions, particularly the Disney version from 1953 have added considerably to the play’s popularity. Perhaps part of its enduring appeal rests in the feeling that there could be a little bit of Peter in all of us. Maybe we, like Peter, want  “always to be a little boy and have fun.”  Film directors and stage directors have consequently tended to present Peter Pan as a celebration of childhood and the power of  imagination. How else to explain why audiences enthusiastically respond when they hear Peter’s appeal:

“Do you believe in fairies? Say quick that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!”

It wasn’t until I read the text of the play that I realised how much it undercuts and disturbs the idea of carefree childhood. In fact it raises some disturbing questions which are never totally resolved.  

Let’s take the character of Peter himself as an example. This is a boy who has boundless energy and enthusiasm for adventure. He wages constant war against his arch enemy Captain Hook, enjoys mock fights with the Indians, and leads the Lost Boys on hunting expeditions. Yet beneath his bravado he is rather a sad figure. He is essentially an orphan, a boy who severed his familial connections when he overheard his parents discussing what he would be when he grew up – growing up is of course the last thing Peter wants to happen. Taking Wendy to Neverland as a ‘mother figure’ who looks after the home and tells stories, is an attempt to fill that gap in his life. Wendy of course wants to be something other than a mother to Peter but the emotional side of his character is so deficient he is confused by her overtures. She is looking to be kissed. He doesn’t understand the concept of ‘a kiss’ – so when asked for one all he can do is present her with an acorn.

It’s not surprising – this is a boy who doesn’t comprehend emotions and in fact has built a protective shield against such sensations. The warning signs are there in his first encounter with Wendy:

Peter: “You mustn’t touch me.”

Wendy: “Why?”

Peter: “No-one must ever touch me.”

He means ‘touched’ in a physical sense but the play makes evident that his emotions are equally impenetrable. Which leaves us with a problem:  if Peter cannot feel anything for another human being, cannot indeed even recognise other people have emotions (he is totally baffled by Tinker Bell’s jealousy of Wendy) he can never fully mature. On that basis, his desire to always want to be a child is a denial of his own humanity. He will forever be stuck as a child, not because this is the most attractive of states but because he cannot be anything else. He cannot move on but remains stuck in an endlessly-repeating cycle of adventures and mistakes and so becomes a tragic figure. It’s a long way from the idea in the popular imagination of Peter as a loveable imp.

Even more disturbing is that Peter also wants to deny other children the possibility of maturity. He is the leader of the Lost Boys, the youngsters who supposedly fell out of their prams as babies, but he doesn’t act as a responsible parent, guiding them through life.  Instead he manipulates them so they think his world, the world of invention, is the real world. They exist in a state of complete make believe, eating pretend meals and wearing the skins of animals they imagine they have killed. Of real life, their life before Neverland, they have only a vague recollection. Wendy proves to be their saviour. Through her influence they begin to remember their past and to long for more than a world of invention.  They are not so far steeped in the cult of Neverland that they cannot leave and join the real world as adopted sons of Mr and Mrs Darling.  But Peter is destined always to remain the outsider.

His isolation is an example of a feeling of sadness that I saw running through the play. Yes it celebrates the exuberance of childhood but Barrie shows that there is also a price to be paid by those who choose to remain in childhood. Though Peter Pan  is in so many ways a celebration of immaturity, it also contains a  warning to those who refuse to grow up. 

Footnotes

The book: Peter Pan or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was first performed in London in 1904. The script however was not published until 1928 – by then Barrie had made some significant changes including the addition of a scene containing an alternative ending. The original play ends with the Darling children back home and Peter promising to return for Wendy every spring. The revised ending – entitled When Wendy Grew Up. An Afterthought – came four years after the play premiered. In this newer version Peter returns for Wendy years later to find that she is now grown up with a daughter of her own named Jane. Wendy is too old to return to Neverland herself but allows her daughter to go as Peter’s new ‘mother’.

The author: J.M Barrie was a Scottish novelist and playwright. He was inspired to create the character of Peter Pan through his involvement with the Llewelyn Davies boys who became his adopted sons when their parents (his friends) died. Barrie first brought Peter Pan to life in a 1902 novel The Little White Bird. 

Why I read this book:  Peter Pan is a set text for a module on children’s literature I have been taking.

Further Information

The text of the play including J. M Barrie’s copious stage directions is available via Project Gutenburg.

 

The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale by Gerard Reve [review]

the-eveningsThe Evenings by Gerard Reve focuses on something we’ve all experienced – wasted days.  They’re the ones where you get up buzzing with plans to make the most of the day.  But you can’t get going until you’ve had breakfast and at least one cup of tea/coffee, and a thorough read of the newspaper. Maybe even an attempt at the crossword. Meanwhile your mobile phone keeps pinging to let you know  emails or text messages are awaiting your attention. Better deal with those first you think, they might be urgent. What’s happening on Facebook you wonder? An hour later having exhausted the stock of cute cat photos and pithy sayings, you migrate to Twitter and post a few of your own witticisms. Time to shower and get ready to face the world. Except everything you pull out of the wardrobe just looks naff. By the time you’ve sorted something that will pass muster it’s almost lunchtime; not really worth starting anything now. And so the pattern is established that will mean by bedtime, not a single thing from your list will have been completed. And you wonder what happened to all that time…..

For Frits van Egters, the central character in Gerard Reve’s debut novel The Evenings, most of his days disappear into this kind of nothingness. In the final days of 1946 he wakes one Sunday morning determined that this day will be different; that this “will be a day well spent.   This will be no wasted and profitless Sunday.” But what happens? Nothing much. He drifts through the day, one minute listening to the radio and the next taking books from his shelves and flicking through them without reading a word. In between he looks out of the window, idly observing the passers by and ducks waddling on the canal, and makes a minute examination of his mouth in the mirror. By then it is afternoon and “all is lost, everything is ruined. But the evening can still make up for a great deal.” Except his visit that evening to a friend also turns out to be a waste of time. And so one day turns into the next and the next. His life in fact is an endless cycle of monotonous days.

The Evenings follows Frits as he wanders aimlessly through the house he shares with his parents and out into the streets of Amsterdam. By day he is at work – what he does exactly we never really discover except that it too involves repetition: “I take cards out of a file,” he responds to a friend’s question. “Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again.” It’s the evenings that hang heaviest on his mind. How to get through them without descending into a black hole of despair? For the 10 consecutive evenings upon which the book is based, we observe the stultifying mundanity of his life.

evenings-dreamingFrits is ever conscious of time and how to make best use of it. During visits to ‘friends’ and even when he is at home with his parents, he is forever looking at his watch, calculating how long before he can move on without seeming impolite. How to avoid long pauses in conversation is his constant dilemma. One strategy he adopts is peppering his conversation with disturbing jokes and anecdotes about death. Another is to ask questions. The questions he asks at home are ones to which he already knows the answer because he’s heard his father’s stories many times over. He likes to think the questions he asks of his friends are philosophically deep and meaningful though it doesn’t matter if they are not because for Frits “Even if a question is entirely pointless it is better than no question at all.“. His questions often baffle people or are inappropriate to the occasion. A night out with Frits is not one to relish. He’s hard work. “Do you people believe that it is right for one to live in moderation?”, he throws at his companions on a night out at a dance hall. They barely have time to respond before he casts another question into the ring: “Are you not of the opinion that eating meat, if not a sin, should in any case be denounced as being unhealthy? ”  

He’s also very direct, not hesitating to point out signs of their ill health or their advancing age.

Oh but you are becoming quite bald,” he tells one man. Listen Joop, without meaning to be nasty your scalp is really almost bare. It will not be long before you can count your hairs on the fingers of one hand… Do you count the hairs in your comb each morning? If you did you would see that there are more of them each day. Slowly but surely. I would be horrified to know that I was going bald. I would lose all desire to live. But please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t mean to discourage you.

With such low levels of interpersonal skills it’s not surprising Frits doesn’t have many friends. His sole true companion is a stuffed rabbit.

Most of this humdrum life takes place in a small quarter of Amsterdam. It’s here that Frits shares an apartment with his half-deaf father and his well-meaning mother. He disdains their eating and hygiene habits (his father comes in for particular contempt for his tendency to walk around the flat half-dressed and slurp his food) and scorns the tedious predictability of their conversation. But he also demonstrates some grudging affection towards them. On New Year’s Eve his mother is distraught to find she was duped into buying not wine for a celebratory drink, but apple-berry juice. To salvage the occasion, Frits dutifully drinks his quota, making encouraging noises about how much nicer it is than wine.

If this sounds dreadful let me assure you that The Evenings is – at times – highly comic. It’s impossible to read Gerard Reve’s portrayal of the battles between father and son for control of the radio or Frits’ paranoia about is body, without laughing out loud. Impossible too not to find some vestiges of sympathy for this hapless, down-trodden specimen of a man. My one difficulty was that a novel about the mediocrity and tediousness of a life did, after a time become rather tedious. The joke wore itself out for me in the middle of the novel. Fortunately I pressed on to the masterful finale where Frits, having failed to find anything remarkable to do to celebrate the new year, invokes a prayer for divine mercy on behalf of his parents, seeking understanding for all their faults. And then contemplates his own situation:

I am alive. I breathe and I move, so I live. Is that clear? What ordeals are yet to come, I am alive.

It sounds as if he is reconciled to his life but what kind of a life is that exactly. Reve doesn’t give us an answer but leaves us to wonder.

I haven’t read enough Dutch literature to know whether The Evenings deserves the accolade given by the Society of Dutch Literature of “the best Dutch novel of all time.” It’s different and memorable but I expect a stand-out novel to maintain quality throughout whereas this one sags in the middle.

Footnotes

The Book: The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale by Gerard Reve was published in Amsterdam as De Avonden in 1946. It’s taken more than 60 years for the novel to become available in English via Pushkin Press. Translation from the Dutch is by Sam Garrett.

The Author:  According to Wikipedia, Gerard Reve is considered one of the “Great Three” of Dutch post-war literature. He declared that the primary message in his work was salvation from the material world but his work is also notable for its themes of religion, love and  his intense hatred of communism. He died in 2006.

Why I read this book:  I’ve seen The Evenings described as a masterpiece of Dutch literature and since this is a part of the world whose literary output is largely unknown to me, I was delighted to see it available via NetGalley in 2016. Pushkin Press Fortnight orchestrated by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog galvanised me into reading it. 

Other Reviews: For a different perspective on The Evenings, here are links to some other reviews.

Want to explore Dutch literature further?

There is a good article on Dutch literature in translation over at Expatica.com where the managing director of the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch literature provides a guide to authors to watch.

5 lessons in book blogging

fifth-birthday

A significant milestone this week – the fifth anniversary of this blog. And a chance to look back over the last few years and appreciate just how far I’ve progressed. Not that I am claiming to be an expert now ; in fact I still feel I am wearing my ‘learner’ plates; but  I’ve definitely made progress. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the five-year journey….

Lesson 1: Avoid the ‘Build it and they will come’ mentality: I was disappointed in the first year that my posts didn’t attract many viewers or comments. I would look at other blogs and get envious at the response their content attracted. It took a while for the penny to drop that the world wasn’t exactly waiting with breathless anticipation for my thoughts on a Booker prize-winning novel. In other words that I couldn’t just publish something and expect everyone to rush to read and comment.  I’d have to work at it; I would need to engage more myself with other bloggers. It wasn’t until I began connecting with other bloggers, commenting on their posts and joining a few challenges, that things began to change.

Lesson 2: Add new content regularly: One of the questions most commonly asked of blog experts is “how often should I post new content’.  Not surprisingly the answer is usually “it depends.” By which they mean it depends on how much you have to say about your particular topic and what you think is your readers’ appetite for hearing from you. I’ve seen some blogs – usually ones which review products like cameras or software, which are updated everyday and sometimes even more than once a day. Equally I’ve come across blogs which just get updated once a month. The more common approach it seems is to go for three or four new pieces a week. When I first started I knew nothing about these best practices. I just posted when I had something to say – which was essentially once a week. But over time that’s changed. I no longer have to scratch my head to think of subjectsI want to write about and actually have a list of potential topics that I keep updating when new ideas come to mind (usually at the most inconvenient times like when I am driving and its too dangerous to start searching for pen and paper).  Even so I’m also conscious that it’s easy to overdo the content and irritate readers who are busy people and don’t have time to read multiple postings from me. Nor frankly do I have the time to do much more right now. Ideally I go for three posts a week but if some weeks that goes down to two, I can’t imagine anyone will cry.

Lesson 3: A blog is not just for Christmas. I’m sure you’ve seen ads with the slogan “a dog isn’t just for Christmas” aimed at people who bow to pressure from their kids to buy a puppy only to find the novelty wears off after a few weeks. But the poor animal still needs feeding, walking, cleaning etc. And so it is with a blog. It needs regular nourishment in the form of new content. If  needs to feel love through regular interaction; acknowledgements that people have taken the time and trouble to leave a comment so you should respond accordingly. And it needs regular maintenance – checking web links are still active for example, and archives are up to date. The key lesson for me in recent years is just how much time it all takes – and that doesn’t include the time to check out other people’s blogs and comment on their content…..

Lesson 4: Find your own voice. I mentioned last week that I’ve been doing some spring cleaning on the site (you can find that post here), visiting some old content and doing a refresh. Reading again those posts from five years ago has been a salutory experience. They were well written in the sense that were grammatical. But oh so dull and worthy. They don’t sound like me at all. Maybe some people right from the off have a unique style that reflects their personality but for me it’s taken a while to stop sounding like a professor and more like someone you could have a chat with about books. There’s a long way to go yet to achieve the tone I’d like but at least I no longer cringe when I read my posts.

Lesson 5: Stick to what you love

Creating the blog marked my entry into an entirely new world, one which had its own vocabulary. Readathon, meme, TBR: all foreign concepts to me. Fortunately there were a few kind people around who took pity on me and explained the new jargon. I must admit I got carried away for a time, joining multiple challenges and latching on to every new idea that came my way. It was fun initially but then began to feel that the blog was no longer my  space, it was being driven not by me but by the need to keep up with external events. Instead of writing what I wanted to write about I was answering prompts from challenges and readathons etc. Gradually I’ve been weaning myself off these. I still do a few memes like the Sunday Salon, Top Ten Tuesday and Six Degrees of Separation but only when I feel like doing them not because I am slavishly pedalling away on a treadmill. If a particular prompt doesn’t interest me then I let it go. In short I will do only what I enjoy doing.

And the future?

There is still so much about blogging I don’t understand (like HTML) and many best practices  I have yet to put into use like search engine optimisation. I’m also still vacillating on whether to go for a self hosted site to give even more flexibility in how the blog looks. So plenty for me to focus on for the next five years.

What lessons have you learned while blogging?

Whether you’ve been blogging for 1 year, or 5 or 10, I’m confident you’ve learned some lessons along the way. So do share via the comments option – what’s been your biggest learning experience? What do you want to learn next?

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