Reading wrap-up: April 2019

Highlights

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Published by Faber, 2018. I read the e-book, borrowed from the library on Overdrive.

Well, this is a conundrum! It’s the second of her novels that I have read and, once again, I might have expected to hate it but actually loved it. Why? I cannot abide being bludgeoned with a lecture in a novel and Kingsolver landed many a hefty didactic punch. And yet, reading her, I feel that I am in a safe pair of hands. I have yet to get to the bottom of why I will allow her to preach so. Is it because of her characters? Is it the satisfying patterning of her prose?

Alternating the chapters through two protagonists runs the risk of disrupting the story’s flow and frustrating (or at least compromising) the reader’s engagement. I quickly became engrossed in both parallel stories: contemporary Willa and 19th Century Thatcher Greenwood both learn that this house they have “inherited” and are living in is literally without foundations. In short order their lives begin to fall around their ears, with their personal catastrophes playing out within the family, the wider community and ultimately on a worldwide scale… and back to the personal again.

To be sheltered is to be safe, or to be protected from harsh realities (which itself may be a culpable privilege). To be unsheltered may be a terrifying and potentially fatal exposure to the elements. Or it could be the source of freedom.

Disappointments

Answering Back: Living Poets Reply to Poetry of the Past edited by Carol Ann Duffy. Published by Picador, 2008. I read the paperback, borrowed from the library.

Fifty contemporary poets respond to a poem of their choice: what a great idea! As with all anthologies there are hits and misses. I regret to conclude that in many cases the original poem was the stronger of the two and the smirking smart-arse school of poetry was over-represented. I found myself thinking of the Salvator Rosa self-portrait whose Latin motto (loosely!) translates as “either say something better than silence or shut the hell up”.

It is worth reading, though, for the clutch of excellent poems and it is always good to be introduced to poets I would not otherwise have read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Violent and Fragile Mystery

Human Work by Sean Borodale
Cape Poetry 2015

Feeding people, and all that entails: a time-consuming, daily task that isn’t work, that too often takes me away from the work in hand, the attentive simmering of words, such that I rarely pause to consider what may be going on a fingertip’s depth beneath the surface.

Sean Borodale wrote Human Work amidst the pots and pans (it’s easy to imagine the jam- and blood-splashed pages) but while his kitchen is the arena of this work, its subject reads as an enquiry into the nature of the heart(h) of the home, of the fundamental sustaining of our human-animal selves. What are its concerns and its communal purpose (he is feeding family and visitors, not just himself)?

The first thing to become apparent is how violent a process it is. In the opening poem, Stewed Apple, the flesh in the pan ‘bellows and blows’ and he uses the technical term, ‘flensing’: this is not so much cookery as going whaling (with Captain Ahab?).

In Making Apple Juice with Makeshift Apparatus (and what a grand metaphor that is for the making of a poem, pressing out perception from the pulp of experience with the best words one has to hand – never mind for the actual business of living!) the work is revealed to be ‘part violence, part sacrament’.

There is a simmering restlessness throughout. In Apple Jelly (ongoing), the opening line, ‘I was asking is a body ever at peace?’ finds its answer later in Elderflower Champagne: to Serve

… you undress your principles
and expose the constant of you rummaging through perception
for an exit.

Nothing holds steady. Everything is in constant transformation. Life is feeding on life and it is not a delicate business.

the eaters wait:
staring,
sat in the trees of their nerves
like rooks.

Globe Artichoke

There is as much death as life in this book, to the extent of (metaphorical) murder:

Beans I kept

like a killer keeps a corpse –
in the freezer five months.

Broad Beans

Yet this prevalent death proves to be inextricable from birth, or rather from pre-birth:

Each stone opened like a wooden womb
or a small sarcophagus;
the vision – very mute nevertheless –
of the small pip, quite naked, pale:
two white foetal feet pressed sole to sole over each sought tree.

Damson Cheese in Detail (Part 1)

The further into the book one travels, the more the tenuousness of our being becomes apparent. The fragrance of Blackcurrant Leaves Steeped in Cream is ‘like the heat of a body / left in a bed’ while in Pears: to Poach (a Meal for Others)

the vapours climbed unsteady – through the existence of air,
vagrant and stray

even the line is stretched to breaking point.

I noticed that many of the lines that caught my eye were the closing phrases or stanzas of poems, which suggests that I was more taken with Borodale’s conclusions than with the reaching of them. On reflection, that would seem a fair assessment. I would also have welcomed a greater variation of tone and pace at the level of the collection as a whole. It may be concerned with the keeping of body and soul together, but it is to the mind that this book most appeals.

It’s not a comfortable collection, this, and I like it the better for that. This maintaining of our human selves – our tenuous and ultimately futile project – what a violent, bright-dark and fragile mystery it turns out to be, encountered and enacted through the ingredients we have to hand in our daily routine.

Reading wrap-up: March 2019

A month in which my book-buying ban went all to blazes.

Highlight

The Overstory by Richard Powers. Oh, this book! Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it would have been  my winner. Everyone I know who has loved it has said, “I’ll never look at trees the same way again!” I think I will never quite look at people the same way again. I don’t recall my ever being someone for whom humans are the only (or even, at times, the primary) species of interest. This book made me weep with rage, frustration and inconsolable sadness. But that’s not to say I didn’t love it. I enjoyed following the seemingly separate narratives as they came together. I felt for the characters (human and arboreal) through what came next. I appreciated having plenty to think about. It was so worth the four months I had to wait for it from the library.

Disappointment

(Not the book as a whole, which I actually enjoyed, but a particular aspect of it.) Witch Light by Susan Fletcher. Corrag is a solitary girl with a knowledge of herbs. She is also a witness to the Glencoe massacre. Put the two together and she’s set to be burnt for a witch. She is, quite simply, in love with life, however difficult and dangerous, and likewise with the natural world. I loved the vivid descriptions of her moment-to-moment experience of the Highlands. The actual love story felt superfluous, as though the author lacked confidence in Corrag as a sufficiently interesting character without having her sighing over a Jamie Fraser-alike. A disappointment, then, in a book that otherwise has much to recommend it.

Reading wrap-up: February 2019

Highlights

The most magnificent birthday book-haul I have ever received! Many of these came from friends on Litsy.

My most impactful read of the month was Finding Baba Yaga by Jane Yolen. Baba Yaga and I go back a long way. I chose to read this book one chapter at a time last thing at night, so that it could best do its work on me.

On the surface it’s a simple tale but as with all great folktales, it has resonances that grow more pronounced the longer you spend in their neighbourhood. Jane Yolen’s version has themes of female friendship, the parent/child relationship, and the power and policing of the spoken word.

The verse proved to be the ideal form for weaving together the familiar, if strange, world of Baba Yaga and the contemporary story of teenage runaway Natasha’s flight from an abusive/negligent family. I feel prose would have required too much exposition and would have seemed contrived. Poetry gives both stories the space and opportunity to encounter each other and co-exist, enriching one another in the process.

Shot through with barbs of wit and moments of real sadness, I think it’ll stick with me a while, this book.( And, on a personal note, it has shown me a potential way forward with a writing project of my own that stalled when I became afraid of it.)

Reading wrap-up: January 2019

January was a month in which, in retrospect, I could discern neither rhyme nor reason as to the criteria a book or author must meet in order to merit inclusion on various prize lists.

Highlights:

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver. Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. Bright young Dellarobia Turnbow heads off up the mountain to escape from her disappointing marriage by the most banal of means and instead is stopped in her tracks by what she initially thinks is a miracle (the forest green and yet burning) but which turns out to be a disastrously misplaced migration of monarch butterflies. I loved the intelligence of this book, paired with Kingsolver’s respect and compassion for her (not terribly sympathetic, albeit understandable) characters. I enjoyed how a global topic (climate change) was grounded in the everyday struggles of an ordinary woman as out of place in her life as the migrating butterflies. Most of all, I appreciated Kingsolver’s craft. I hadn’t read her before and, while she is didactic at times, it didn’t take long for me to feel that I could trust her as a writer.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith. Winner of various prizes. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014. Comprising the stories of teenager George, grieving for her mother, and 15th Century Italian painter Francescho, two different versions of this book were released: one beginning with George and the other with Francescho. While I was initially wary of the authorial firework display (and didn’t particularly enjoy Autumn either) it remains playful and doesn’t descend into heartless cleverness. I became intrigued by thoughts of how my perceptions of the story might be different had I picked up the other version (mine had George first). There was plenty to think about altogether: art, time, grief, gender. Reading recalled vividly to mind the experience of being engrossed in Peter Ackroyd novels during my A-Levels: there is a similar theme of reality and time being less solid and linear than we tend to perceive. In a sense, I briefly got to “be both”, too!

Disappointments:

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017. Lonely Linda becomes attached to a young family across the lake but suspects that something is not right: is her need to belong stronger than her need to speak up and act on her suspicions? It had a promising theme around beliefs/thoughts and responsibility towards others (and circumstances in which the two become incompatible) and I thought Fridlund captured the sense of place, Linda’s loneliness and the horrible foreboding very well. However, when Something Happened it was all of a sentence and the rest of the book unravelled thereafter. I felt she made inferences at times that her story-craft hadn’t earned and, as a whole, the book read like two or even three novel plots stitched into one. And what the hell was that ending?! Structurally unsound: proceed with caution.

The Power by Naomi Alderman, a Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and Granta Best of British Writer. Girls discover that they have the power to cause electric shocks through touch. They “wake” this power in grown women and, lo and behold, men are suddenly a lot less dominant. I was curious as to where this would go and amused by the sly humour but ended up feeling bludgeoned by the escalating awfulness. It paints a dismal view of human nature: that we inevitably default to shrieking like chimps and tearing each other’s throats out. We have accepted a narrow and dysfunctional notion of what constitutes power (i.e. power over another) and the book reflects that. In short order the women are behaving in all the ways that misogynistic men/ societies currently do and, my word, does it escalate!

It’s easy to imagine there would be a backlash if such a thing were to occur and I’m not suggesting that female dominance would be all cake and cuddles but what’s presented here is a gender-reversed continuation of patriarchal norms. I’m at a loss to understand all the whooping and hollering this has occasioned. And am I the only one cringing at the obviousness of Margaret Atwood’s cover endorsement? “Electrifying! Shocking!” Really?! (How on Earth am I supposed to trust her judgement after that?) I don’t feel shocked: I feel numbed.

Reading Wrap-up: December 2018

For the third month in a row, I have stuck to my self-imposed book-buying ban. I did have a good Christmas book haul, though!

Highlights

Sea Summit: Poems by Yi Lu, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. I love this book (or, at least, I love the half of it that’s in English)! At first glance a direct descendant of traditional pastoral poetry, it soon reveals that passively consuming nature (and pretty poems about it) is not an option. Rusty iron girders have a place alongside the birds and flowers and all demand that the reader, no less than Yi Lu herself (with her remarkable porosity) be an active participant. Yes, our actions affect the natural world but so are we changed in our trajectories by the appearance, if we only notice it, of a bird.

Disappointments

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. Stuff and nonsense! Had I not been reading this for the #ShakespeareReadAlong on Litsy, I would have bailed out long before the final act. Leontes, King of Sicilia, has a ridiculous hissy fit and thereby causes heedless death and suffering to the people who should be under his protection. Polixenes, his erstwhile best friend and King of Bohemia, has a hissy fit of his own which makes everything right in the end, if you can overlook said death and suffering. Powerful men indulging in behaviour that would shame the kids splashing about in the water corner at playgroup: just what we need! And as for that ending?! Nope! I liked Paulina. I loved the language. And that is all.

Reading wrap-up: November 2018

For the second month running I have stuck to my book-buying ban!

Highlights

Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw. He shares several Dartmoor stories, walking the ground of their being as he does so, and offers a lively, thoughtful and sometimes surprising commentary on them, informed by his belonging to this land. This may sound rather narrow in scope but he covers a lot of cultural ground. I found the book fascinating, exciting to read, challenging at times and at others a huge relief. I don’t want to say too much about it though. It’s still percolating. Have a listen to the man himself: drmartinshaw.com/books/scatterlings

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Evasive celebrity novelist Vida Winter invites amateur biographer Margaret Lea to stay in her Yorkshire mansion to hear her tale and write her life story. But why has Vida chosen Margaret? And what hidden connection does Margaret have to Vida’s story? This is a proper, good old-fashioned gothic novel. I watched the BBC adaptation (with Olivia Colman and Vanessa Redgrave) a while back so knew I would enjoy the story but I wasn’t expecting Margaret to be such a bookworm! I loved all the nods to the Bronte sisters but am not quite the fan of a “proper” ending that Margaret is: I prefer things a little less neatly tied-up. (And, yes, I did have a wistful hankering after Vida Winter’s non-existent novels.)

Disappointments

Game of Thrones (Volume 1) by George R R Martin. Curiosity got the better of me: I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It’s not bad but it isn’t my cup of tea. The chaps charge about being heroic or dastardly and the women mainly get to be their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters. (I’ve been told that they “come into their own” later. Well, I would hope so: there’s only so much satisfaction to be gained from having fabulous hair.) I think I’m too much of a bolshevik to tolerate all the my-lords and my-ladies. All in all, Tyrion was the only character to hold my interest, probably because he is morally ambiguous and he thinks.

Reading Wrap-up: October 2018

A month in which I stuck to my book-buying ban and made good use of the Poetry Library’s online collection.

Highlights

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I’ve chosen this as my pick of the month (though Burial Rites is a close second) as I think it is the one that will stay with me the longest.

“To succeed, to enjoy lasting good fortune, one must have a different temperament from mine. I shall never do what I could have done and ought to have wanted and pursued.”

Vincent, friend, you did all right! These are fascinating letters which, naturally, give great insight into his art and what it meant to him but which also show him and his work interacting within a wider context than that of the isolated madman of his “mythology”. He comes across as a driven and difficult individual, yes, but also a deeply thoughtful and vitally involved one. The collected letters are simultaneously heart-breaking and affirming.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. The story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland, for the murder of her lover/employer. I was astonished to learn that this was a debut novel, and will definitely look out for more of hers. I thought there were striking parallels (e.g. the nature of the crime committed, the circumstances and ambiguity of the woman found guilty) between this book and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace but, while Atwood is undeniably clever, I feel that Kent’s book has more heart: the last chapter, especially, made for difficult reading.

Disappointments

The Canterbury Tales: a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd. I enjoyed Chaucer very much when I first encountered him, many years ago: here’s the cast of lively characters that I remember, with a host of boisterous tales to tell. I still enjoy Chaucer (and one day will re-read the original). Twenty and more years ago I loved everything I read by Peter Ackroyd so was looking forward to a treat: what a disappointment! Why? In a word, misogyny. Whether of the casual or deliberate kind, there’s no let up. The characters, Chaucer and Ackroyd all fall back on “no offence intended: just repeating what I heard” and while this may be accepted as par for the course in Middle English verse, in contemporary English prose the effect is harder to stomach.

The male characters reveal themselves by their words and behaviour as blusterers and blatherskites (Chaucer has a laugh at everyone’s expense, his own included) but the constant harping on the failings of women in a modern voice is at first irritating and then cumulatively demoralising. That’s not my idea of entertainment.

Letters Against the Firmament by Sean Bonney. Written against a backdrop of “austerity” and other Tory doublespeak, I get the rage, I really do. But, for me, this collection is an example of what happens to poetry when it is disembodied, so to speak, when the idea becomes paramount. And it reads as though written not from a need to communicate but to enjoy the big, shocking sound of its voice bouncing off the walls.  The result is phrasing such assertions as: There is no prosody, there is only a scraped wound – we live inside it like fossilised, vivisected mice. Well that’s certainly a striking and nasty image but what on Earth does it MEAN? Anything? Imagine putting hours of machine gun fire into Google Translate: there you have it.

Our Lady of the Sparrows

Once upon a time there was a girl who spoke sparrows. She didn’t speak to sparrows: when she opened her mouth it wasn’t words that came out but birds. This was unconventional, to say the least.

Her family was deeply embarrassed and didn’t know what to do with her until one day they had the bright idea of selling their story (her story!) to the papers. Well, after that, people flocked to their door to catch a glimpse of the miracle and gawp at the freak-show that was their daughter. Some chirped that she was a holy-woman, others squawked that she was a witch. Stephen Fry tweeted that she was a fraud.

The girl who spoke sparrows was very unhappy. She had things of her own that she wanted to say, damn it, but all anyone cared about was those bloody birds. Talk about stuck in a rut! Stuck in a rut with bird-shit all over the IKEA furniture, to boot!

So she made a decision. No words: no birds. She refused to open her mouth. People got bored and went home. They had uncooperative teenagers of their own.

Finally!… except that… after a while, the girl began to feel the tickle of feathers in her throat. Oh no! She swallowed hard. Now claws began to scratch at her. She couldn’t keep it in any longer. She opened her mouth and out flew not a sparrow but a HAWK! And then life got very interesting…