Monday, 22 May 2023

The Death of Martin Amis

 Martin Amis, enfant terrible, described as the literary "Mick Jagger" has died at the age of 73. 

A shock - he seems too young (and only four years older than me).

I've commented on him in passing in two posts hitherto (see labels), in which I noted that although I had read some of his non-fiction, I had never read any of his novels.  This situation has not changed.  Now I think it never will.  If reading a serious novel is a dialogue with the author, there is no need for this dialogue now. (I'm not including entertainment novels in this generalisation, and most novels I read are for entertainment only).

So, goodbye, Martin.  Golden, good-looking boy, famous son of a famous father, acclaimed and praised voice of an era.

"Golden girls and boys all must

As chimney sweepers come to dust"  (Shakespeare, Cymbeline).  

I've realised that this is why I find planting trees more important (see previous post).  They will outlive me. (And most writing other than Jane Austen and Shakespeare).

You can measure an oak tree's circumference with a tape measure and refer to an app to see how old the tree is.  This one is approximately 350 years old.

Tuesday, 16 May 2023

Reflections Inspired by Thomas Hardy

This picture shows a house in Sturminster Newton, Dorset, where Thomas Hardy lived with his first wife Emma for two year from 1875.  They had been married just five years and were still very happy.  He wrote a poem about it called "The Two-Year Idyll".  His diary extracts from this period suggest that the maid they had at the time might have inspired his famous novel "Tess of the Durbervilles".  The maid was seduced, left their employ by climbing out of a window at night (the same window through which her seducer entered), had a baby which died, and then disappeared.

I've visited Thomas Hardy's birthplace at least three times, and the house where he died likewise.  They are both now owned and managed by the National Trust, and are filled with tasteful period artefacts (none of them original to Thomas Hardy).  This is the first time I have managed to track down Sturminster Newton and it has been on my "list" for about 10 years.

As a first wife myself, once much appreciated, but in old age resented and ignored, I had enormous sympathy for poor Emma.  Once adored, then neglected and despised, her story struck me as tragic but probably fairly typical. As Mrs Charles Dickens wrote in a letter " I was loved once."  Mrs Dickens, just a few years ahead of Emma in age and experience, was cast aside for a mistress, made to leave the family home, and forcibly separated from her children.  

Emma and Thomas had no children.  A diary entry from the Sturminster Newton interlude suggests that this was a source of sorrow to Thomas ... "Not a sign of one for us". 

A recently published book called "The Chosen", was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2023.

This novel imagines the relationship between Thomas and Emma and how it deteriorated in the final years (Hardy's mistress Florence Dugdale was actually invited to the house and spent a Christmas with them).  I thought it was very well written, and well imagined except for one thing - Emma blames Thomas for the fact they never had children whereas his actual diary entry suggests otherwise.

It's well worth a read as an insight into their marriage.  I recommend it if you don't have time to read his diary, her "Recollections", their letters, and his awe-inspiring poetry.  After Emma's death he realised what he was missing and poured out a torrent of poetry re-creating their romantic meeting in Cornwall, their four-year courtship. Significantly, perhaps, he wrote nothing about their wedding, and not a word about their  honeymoon.  

I finally tracked down the house, and the porch where Emma used to wait for him in a white muslin dress at the end of a long, lonely day with no friends and virtually nothing to do. He immortalised this vision in a poem.

Guilty, but not enough to stop him doing so, he admitted that he dawdled on the way home, knowing that she was lonely and eager to see him.  He spent time looking at the river, and lingered on his walk over these meadows, which are virtually unchanged in 150 years.

We walked across this meadow, as he would have done.

I had thought that I would be overcome with emotion at finding myself at last treading in the footsteps of Thomas and Emma, and re-creating the feelings he wrote about.  He was actually quite good at imagining how Emma must have felt, after she was dead and it was too late.

This did not happen, however.  I was pleased to have ticked the visit off my list, took the above three photos, and then went off to find a pub for lunch.  I realised that something has changed.

 For those who wonder if I'm still here - having posted nothing for nearly a year.

Yes, I'm still here. About to celebrate my 70th birthday this month.  

The pandemic changed a lot of things in my life - some things have never recovered - my relationship with books has changed. After the compulsive reading and listening to audio books which spread over the two years 2020 to 2022, it no longer seems so vital to engage with other people's versions of the world.  My own, rapidly running towards its conclusion, seems far more important.

I no longer volunteer, since the pandemic closed all the outlets in which I did so - the museum, the local historic monument (English Heritage), plus a nearby National Trust venue.  I have not returned to volunteering, being that much older, being less mobile and active since two falls - one in 2021, one in 2022.

My mother-in-law died (unrelated to Covid). The last member of the older generation, and leaving a big gap in many people's lives. The world seems a little emptier, and it has definitely affected husband's outlook on life, not for the better.

I'm still reconfiguring, and trying to come to terms with the finite nature of existence, which didn't seem so finite whilst mother-in-law was still going strong at 97.

I still keep a record of every book I read, and every audio-book I listen to, but it doesn't seem to be so important to share.  Planting trees seems much more important.

Best wishes to those who have enquired, why not let me know how your views on life have changed, or not changed, since the events of the last few years.

Tuesday, 9 August 2022

To Paradise, by Hanya Yanagihara


I've now read this book, by an author  referred to in the previous post, in which I reported on an interview  found in "The New Yorker."

It's extremely rare that I turn back to the beginning to read again any book I have just completed.  The last time it happened was with Hilary Mantel's personal memoir, "Giving Up The Ghost".

"To Paradise" is long, and divided into three sections - 1892, 1992, and 2092.  The sections are connected by what appear to be members of two or three families, the Binghams, the Griffiths, and the Bishops.  Characters from the first section turn out to be the grandparents and great-grandparents, and later the great-great grandparents of those who appear in the later sections.

Another common theme is that all the main characters are gay men, and in fact, the writer depicts these sometimes successful, sometimes failed relationships with such skill, delicacy and empathy that I had to look the author up again to make sure that it is not a man.  I'm not sure why this is such an important theme, as the successes and (more often) failures are similar to those of any relationship.  There is also the common theme of discrimination, which runs throughout the novel.The main characters in each section are discriminated against, usually on grounds of their sexuality, but also on racial grounds and even on the grounds of their political and social position.

The theme of the total destruction of the world as we know it is what hits hardest. As our homes sizzled in hitherto unheard of 40 degree temperatures, I was reading of environments devoid of trees - they had wilted to death in constant and relentless heat. As we were warned of hosepipe bans, I read of water shortages such that showering took place in communal "air showers" and even these were strictly rationed.  News footage of wildfires accompanied me as I read of the exhaustion of the emergency services  dealing with fires following hard on the heels of devastating floods.

The recent pandemic of Co-vid 19 (which is not over yet) runs through the book - a relentless series of pandemic waves pouring over the world in all too realistic detail.  The great skill of a good dystopian novel is to select actual, factual elements from the world around us, then weave them into a narrative of imagined characters set against recognizable backdrops. The backdrops are altered just enough to make the settings scary and the events are exaggerated just enough to convince the reader that this could be us, if things should, (as the narrative insists that they will ) get  worse.  

It's possible to trace the apocalyptic climaxes in the third section back to events and human activities from the first and second parts.  The middle section is particularly vivid in its depiction of the island of Hawaii, notable for desecration by human activity.  The words of a Joni Mitchell song rang in my ears throughout - "They paved paradise, and put up a car park."

The first time I read the book, I concluded that the "Paradise" of the title was death.  Some of the main characters actively wish for death, others can only achieve peace via death. And the mess humans have made of the planet seems a fitting reason why death is the only solution for human beings.  

Near the end, we are given an ancient fable about a lizard which ate and ate and ate every leaf, blade of grass, fruit, fish,  anything it could, because it had to eat to stay alive.  Its whole purpose was simply to eat and stay alive.  Naturally it ended up destroying its habitat until there was nothing left to eat.  Ah, we think, a perfect image for the human race, destroying its environment - then humans will die out completely and that will be the end of it.  But the lizard doesn't die, it returns, as a creature walking upright, and the environment gradually regenerates.  The narrator in this section reflects that some will die, but others will "keep doing what we always have ... doing what our nature compels us to ..."

The second reading made me think the complete opposite.   Life is an ongoing gift, which we should never reject by pessimism and defeatism. The majority of us will not in any case choose to reject, but are driven on by the impulse to survive.

Life is the paradise, the world is the paradise.  It's up to us to make the best of it.  

Friday, 21 January 2022

The New Yorker, January 17th 2022

I am a great fan of the public library system, and have written here about my first library book, which I "borrowed" (in fact my mother handled the entire transaction) at the age of five.

And here about the efforts of the public library to interest me in e-books.  My scorn, expressed ten years ago, has been replaced by delight, especially since the pandemic when the public library buildings were closed for months on end. Many wonderful books could be accessed, at the touch of a phone screen, and audiobooks could be downloaded free of charge. I have written here about the many audiobooks I listened to last year, and every single one was a free download from one of two library websites. One is called "Borrowbox" and the other is called "Libby".

A further delight offered by the library Libby app is the unlimited quantity of magazines available to read online. Downloading a magazine does not affect the number of books or audiobooks you are allowed to borrow at any one time.

You can read the Radio Times, (this does require some patience in scrolling, as the pages are so full of tiny boxes).  You can read "Hello" (if you want to catch up with the latest pictures of William and Kate). You can read "The New Yorker".  

Now, I spent much of my youth reading stories from The New Yorker, anthologised (my copy is shown below)

in paperback form. I still have a copy of this book, in this exact edition, increasingly fragile and yellowing, as it dates back 60 years. My ideal short story, as showcased in this collection,  is encapsulated by a conversational ambience, a comfortable feeling of fireside chat, a homely, yet educated tone, (one often emerging from an older, immigrant, poverty-soaked childhood), an emphasis on family, childhood memories, and family relationships.

When I read the complete edition of Sylvia Path's letters, I was intrigued to note that one of her great ambitions was to have a story published in The New Yorker.  The magazine accepted many of her poems, but her ambition for a story was not realised.  This was comforting to me. When a writer has become a legend, it is sometimes hard to imagine that they ever failed at anything.  This brings Sylvia to life as an ordinary human being, a new perspective.

So when I discovered that I was able to access every weekly edition of the magazine online, free, and peruse at my leisure, I was delighted.  I homed in first on the stories. Stories these days encompass every type, every background, every type of voice. Some of them I just can't find interesting.  

At other times, the story is pure genius, which is hard to define.  An example is anything by the Chinese born scientist, Yiyun Li. Here is a novel which I strongly recommend, as a good indication of her political depth, historical knowledge, and emotional intensity. You can also listen to an episode of BBC World Book Club here, in which she talks about this novel.  Yiyun Li was born in China, so brings a very different background to the table, also being a scientist she is not the usual type of writer. 

Many stories in The New Yorker, however, appear to me to be both pointless and boring.  If nothing happens, I struggle to see why the story is deemed to be worthy of publication.

I am an eternal seeker after the next interesting story, so I persist.  This week I am reading the magazine edition of 17th January, and have devoured the first of my chosen items of interest, an interview with the New York based writer, Hanya Yanagihara. 

As a subscriber to "Goodreads" and "Guardian Books" website newsletters, I have already come across this author's name as one to look out for on lists of the best books to be published in 2022. Her new book is called "To Paradise." 

She is best known for her second published book, which appeared in 2015, called "A Little Life".  I have owned a copy of "A Little life" for some years now, and have yet to read a page of it.  The fact that it is 700 pages long is of less importance than the reviews, which all emphasise the content as being terribly upsetting, largely about appalling physical torture and abuse. This has put me off.  The new book, following three timelines, 1892, 1992, and 2092, in New York, sounds interesting, so I read the interview.

As is sometimes the case, I found the author herself (as portrayed in the interview) far more intriguing than the book itself.

She spent fifteen years writing her first book, "People Who Live in Trees"which seems like an incredible marathon.  A triumph of self-belief. It was little thought of at the time, and was quickly completely overshadowed by her second, "A Little Life".

She spent 18 months writing this, her second book, a 1,000 page long manuscript, writing between nine and midnight every evening, and through the weekend.

She lives in an apartment containing 10,000 books. She is 48. 

Why do the numbers grip me more than the content? I am not sure.  All I can say is that I find her own life, as viewed and interpreted by the New Yorker interviewer, far more fascinating than the idea of reading a lengthy tome about torture and abuse, however well reviewed.  I went to my upstairs bookcase and brought down my copy of "A Little Life" to my downstairs bookcase, in case I should feel the need to dip into it.  I haven't felt this need yet.

I think what I really find fascinating is how diverse writers are, how their lives are so different from mine, how they scintillate with visions which they translate into words.  Some of these word-pictures I find entrancing, some moderately interesting  and some completely boring.  But the individuals themselves, the writers, each one completely an entirely unique human being - now THAT is interesting.

Friday, 7 January 2022

The White Ship and In the Midst of Winter

 Two More Books finished, and still in the first week of the New Year! Awesome progress.

This one is  history book, set in the reign of Henry I, but reads like a very exciting blockbuster.

There are some great female characters in the history too, almost all of them called Matilda.

Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, is the mother of Henry I, who was her youngest son.  She had nine children, four of them sons.  Two died in hunting accidents. One of these was the second son, Richard, the other the third son, William II of England. The third and fourth sons became William II and Henry I.

Robert Curthose - short trousers - (the eldest son) tried to become King of England, as one might expect, him being the eldest.  However, the Norman rules of succession were slightly different, and so it was accepted when the Conqueror's third son, William Rufus, succeeded as King of England.  After causing a lot of trouble in Normandy (where he was the legitimate heir under Norman rules of succession), Robert was finally captured and imprisoned by Henry I and kept imprisoned for the rest of his exceptionally long life.
The next Matilda was the first wife of Henry I - she was previously called Edith but renamed after marriage because Edith was an Anglo-Saxon name. 

A third was Matilda of Anjou, betrothed to Henry I's only legitimate son, (on whom the plot turns) - he was drowned in the White Ship in 1120, thus leaving Henry without an heir.  The kingdom was plunged into anarchy, literally, "The Anarchy" as it was referred to by contemporary historians, following the death of Henry I.  

A fourth Matilda, "the Empress"(a title gained on her first marriage to Henry V  of Germany), was the daughter of Henry I. She was his only other legitimate child (he had 22 illegitimate ones). She was named his heir and he intended her to inherit, but as she was a woman, her cousin Stephen took the throne instead, supported by the nobles who didn't want a woman on the throne.  Stephen, a likeable but weak character, was married to yet another Matilda, the fifth in this list. She was a strong and interesting woman, without whose support Stephen's reign would have ended much earlier than it did.

I feel that the field is wide open for a wonderful historical novel, possibly called "The Two Matildas", in which Henry's daughter and his nephew's wife battle it out over the next fifteen years after Henry's death.

I followed "The White Ship" as an audio book, which is a great way to consume more works while multi-tasking. 

A fascinating interview with the author, Charles Spencer (famously brother of Princess Diana), is available FREE.  You do have to log in and register, but after that, it's all free.

My next book is as follows:
I studiously avoided Isabel Allende for most of my life, having noted that her blockbuster "The House of the Spirits" seemed to be about things that wouldn't interest me.  I did watch a rerun on TV of the film, and found it better than I expected.  I remained a bit snobbish about blockbusters however, for some further years.

The real breakthrough came when I picked up a copy of her autobiographical work "Paula" in a charity shop. It's about the sad illness and death (at 29) of her beautiful, clever, successful and much adored only daughter, combined with a history of her own life intertwined with the twentieth century history of Chile, Allende's birthplace.  
After this, I would read anything by this author (always excepting The House of the Spirits).  

"In the Midst of Winter" seemed apt, and was available in the library on the shelf, so I took it home.

It would appear to me (I'm not accusing Jeanine Cummins of plagiarism), that the recent bestseller "American Dirt" may have been inspired by this book.  "Winter" concerns three characters, two of whom have been refugees from South American countries ravaged by appalling political and gang violence.  The younger escapes from Guatemala much as some of the younger characters in "American Dirt" did. The older,  being obviously modelled on the author, escaped from Chile in 1973 when a right-wing military coup overthrew the legitimately elected democratic left wing government headed by the author's cousin, Salvador Allende.

There is a bit of a lightweight mystery plot, (who killed the body in the boot? ) and a frankly fantasist love story between the two sixty something academics, but the real meat of the book is the refugee experience, from 1973 and then in 2008, including later references to Trump's border policy which was already being trumpeted (sorry) in 2015 when the book was being written. Also, because Isabel Allende has been married three times, and, at the time of writing was still very close to her 96 year old mother, the book is about women's lives, women as mothers, as daughters, as grand-daughters and as victims.  This is timeless. In both the two main female characters, an absent and/or feckless father has no part in their upbringing, which is carried out by the grandmother in one case, the mother in the other, devotedly, and with huge love which is reciprocated.

Just a couple of quotes -  a third, lesser character, an American white woman grossly abused by her husband, sees a psychiatrist.  Almost as an aside, the author notes that this woman "had confessed to her psychiatrist that she longed to be a widow. He had listened without showing the least surprise, having heard the same from other patients ...[who wished] their spouse dead.  His waiting room was filled with repressed, furious women."

Lucia, the Chilean exile, felt that "the hardest part had been her mother's death, which had affected her more than [her] divorce or cancer".  

Being the mother of two daughters,  I lapped this up.  I have always wondered why the standard romantic trope (or tripe, as you will), depicts a weak and needy woman searching for a strong handsome man to take care of them for ever.  The reality is much more likely to be as depicted here - flaky, or useless, or violent men ( or men who combine all of these characteristics), who leave, either physically or emotionally.  One husband was a bigamist, one left his wife when she got breast cancer because he couldn't cope (this exact situation happened to the fifty-something daughter of my neighbour).  A third was a violent and abusive human trafficker.  Two youths were killed in gang violence.  
It's no wonder I just don't believe in the sweet romance between the two sixty-somethings.

I probably sound like an embittered old bag.  Having been in the same relationship for 44 years, I do feel that there is a lot wrong with the traditional romantic stereotype.  My mother-in-law, whom I have thus known for 44 years, has just died.  I sometimes feel that she understood me better than my husband does.   She is much missed.

Monday, 3 January 2022

First Two Books of 2022 finished 2nd January 2022

So, not quite one a day, but two in two days isn't bad! This is the first:

I have in the past found Nabakov difficult.

 At college in 1976, I had the misfortune to be rooming in a shared house with a colossal bore who wanted to go on and on endlessly about "Lolita" and the brilliance of the character "Humbert Humbert". I dismissed all ideas of reading that book, because even 45 years ago it was clear to me that it concerned criminal child pornography.

Later on in life, I thought I'd give the memoir "Speak Memory" a go, hoping to learn more about what it was like to live through the Russian Revolution. Somehow, this failed to hit the spot. The only detail I retain is the train journey, attempted escape. The wealthy Nabokov family, cosseted in first class warmth and padded carriages, were astounded when thuggish revolutionaries urinated down the chimneys into the elite compartments from the roof.

Recently I took to reading the "New Yorker" online, which contains a short story in every weekly publication. One of the best of all the stories I have read in the last year was an excerpt from "Pnin" (it's actually chapter 6). This enchanted me, and I recognized at last the brilliance of the writing, so I decided to read the whole book.

You do need a dictionary. Why use the word "calvity" when the perfectly good word "baldness" exists, and baldly states the condition without nuance or subtext.

You do need patience. It's not a rollicking page turner.

However, I did laugh out loud on at least three occasions (almost unheard of for a 68 year old with jaded palate for humour).

There is subtlety and there is irony, and there is a very straightforward critique of the more ridiculous aspects of American college education (some of which we now see here in the UK). There is pathos, and the backstory of poor Pnin (far more evocative of the emigre experience than "Speak Memory") is filtered with delicacy during the course of the book through the lens of his current experiences.

Timofey Pnin is a truly unique creation, a bumbling yet endearing intellectual. Rejected by his cruel wife Liza, dismissed as unimportant by the more ambitious academics who seek to oust him from his untenured position, he evokes a long lost past. Through his experiences the author depicts an America which welcomed all its sad waifs and refugees (unlike the America of today). This aspect of the book (unimagined when it was written) has a pathos all of its own.

I give it four stars because there is something unsatisfying about the shadowy "narrator" who first poses as a friend of Pnin's, but is later exposed as someone Pnin cannot stand to be with or near, but this is never explained. Even this is revolutionary, however - the so-called "unreliable narrator" has become an extremely fashionable trope in contemporary English-language fiction in the last five or so years.

Finally, it is a short book, only 168 pages in the Penguin Classics paperback edition, so easily despatched.

The second book I finished today is even shorter, and much easier to read.

I've read books in which the pandemic appears right at the end, ("The Black Dress" by Deborah Moggach) or during the latter part of the book ("Summer" by Ali Smith), and this is the first I've read set entirely right in the thick of it. It is set in the Peak District during the second lockdown of 2020, foreshadowing the locked down Christmas of 2020, and referencing back to the first lockdown.

It's eery to see set down on the page the restrictions, the laws and fines, the confinement to home, the washing of shopping and hands, the loneliness and isolation. I now look back from the perspective of the post vaccination year of 2021 (the first vaccinations were in January 2021, after the book ends). It's so easy to forget what it was actually like, after getting used to the relative freedoms conferred by the summer of 2021 and the booster jabs which have encouraged many to get out more. It seems incredible what we actually put up with. This novel will become important social history. I would expect it to appear on school reading lists in the future.

The author has uncannily inserted herself into the minds of three key characters, representing three demographics - the well-off aged who can afford their comfort but are vulnerable, the frustrated and poor middle aged who lose their salary and their freedom (which matters more), and the young, who are doubtful, confused, fearful, angry but ultimately need the guidance of their elders.

The plot, which concerns a quarantine breaker out walking on the fell, is a neat analogy for those who court the virus by mixing with others, cost the state a lot of money, have to be cared for and are cared for.

Humanity and the mixed perils of being human. A very swift read, and a very worthwhile one.
Why only four stars? I feel the definitive pandemic novel has yet to be written and will be much longer and more philosophical than this one.

Thursday, 30 December 2021

Books Read 2021

From 1st January 2021 to yesterday morning  I have read 29 e-books, 46 audio books, and 56 actual physical volumes. That seems huge but it only works out at 2.5 a week,when theoretically I could consume double that. I am absolutely loving the chance to indulge my reading habit with the excuses of lockdown and other similar reasons for not going out. My stand-out reads are:

Hardbacks: “What Happened” by Hillary Clinton and “Apeirogon” by Colum McCann.

Paper backs – “American Dirt” by Jeanne Cummins and “Last Witnesses” by Svetlana Alexievich

e-books – “Rodham” by Curtis Sittenfeld and “Tom Stoppard” by Hermione Lee. Runner up “Miss Austen” by Gill Hornby

Audio books “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens and “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker. Runner up “Dunstan” by Col Igguldon.

I received a Christmas card from an old friend dating back to 1972, when we met in the first term at University. This friend is now resident in France, and we last met in 2016.  She inscribed her card with "Thank God for books!"

I agree.