Review: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

mountains-echoed“A story is like a moving train:”, writes Nabi, one of Khaled Hosseini’s characters, “no matter where you hop on board you are bound to reach your destination”.

In And the Mountain’s Echoed, it is passengers getting on and off that train who carry the story. And Hosseini is a superb story-teller. He knows how to accumulate the small details which bring a place and a person to life and capture memories and emotions: a son noticing the looseness of an elderly mother’s pyjamas, the denture glue and the fuzzy slippers she would never once have worn – all the small signs of change which add up to his sudden recognition of her frailty. The bonds of family, of responsibility and of love are not always easy to accept and Hosseini realistically conveys the individual strengths and weaknesses of his characters.

This book begins with a traditional Oriental tale of divs and jinns and families threatened by a fearsome child-stealing monster. Abdullah and his little sister Pari listen as their father tells this frightening tale, unaware that its moral – that a finger had to be cut to save a hand – will soon have horrible relevance to their own lives. It is Afghanistan, 1952, and Abdullah and Pari live with their father, step-mother and new little brother in a village near to Kabul: but this is soon to change. As different characters tell of their own lives we move from Afghanistan to Paris, San Francisco and  a small island in Greece, and we travel back and forth in time. Always, there is a link, however tenuous, to Abdullah and Pari and their family and the story-train does eventually reach its destinations, but along the way we meet many different people.

Whilst never forgetting the horrors of war and the choices forced on families by disaster and poverty, Hosseini concentrates on the way in which life goes on, regardless of change. This is story-telling at its best as his characters reveal themselves through their varied tales. There are those who flee Afghanistan; some who migrate and then briefly return; the few who are drawn there as aid-workers by war and its aftermath; and those who must stay or who choose to stay, some of whom benefit from  war and some who are devastated by it. At times the sudden jump from one voice to another is disconcerting, and the connection of each new character with the story is not always immediately apparent, but Hosseini draws everything together with great skill.

Many of Hosseini’s characters have secrets. Nila, the most flamboyant, has things in her past which she never fully reveals, and facts about her marriage, too, which she keeps to herself. It is Nabi, Abdullah’s and Pari’s uncle and Nila’s family manservant and chauffeur who knows, or learns, some of these secrets. And it is his letter to a foreign surgeon working in Afghanistan which eventually reveals to Pari Nila’s biggest secret – the one which changed Pari’s life.

Quite how the metaphorical ‘loss of a finger’ saved Abdullah’s and Pari’s family is not clear. Each person was changed by events and in ways over which they did not always have control, but whether this was for the better or not readers must decide for themselves. Always, however, this book is enjoyable.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2013
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/
Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot: http://ann.skea.com/Arielindex.html

Review: She Rises by Kate Worsley

9781408835906In a recent article about women’s writing it was claimed that respect and a wide readership is more likely if the author adopts a male perspective. Kate Worsley’s book half fulfills this criterion by offering a male and a female perspective in alternating chapters, but it also subverts it. However, to explain just how Worsley manages this subversion would be to give away one of the secrets of the book.

In 1740, fifteen-year-old Luke is drinking in a Harwich tavern when he is press-ganged into His Majesty’s Navy. His induction into life on board the warship Essex is brutal and overwhelming, and Worsley captures his experiences vividly. The smell of the bilges and of the men, the constant noise and movement, the hard, unfamiliar routines, the roughness, the fights and the course language, the dangers and the brutal punishments – Luke becomes familiar with them all. But all the time he yearns for his lost love.

In a different, less dangerous but equally disorientating way, young Louise Fletcher (Lou) exchanges life on an Essex farm (where she was “trained up from the age of twelve in the dairy work, in cow milking, and the buttermaking, and cheesemaking, and getting up the wheys and syllabubs”), for life as a lady’s maid in the busy sea-port of Harwich. Rebecca, her mistress, is the spoiled and willful daughter of Captain Handley, who runs a profitable packet boat which plies between Harwich and the Low Countries. Louise’s introduction to the Handley household and to her new mistress is strange, and Worsley immerses Louise and the reader in this new town life with its constant bustle, its odours, its tall houses “rackety as a row of sties”, the ships and the sailors, the drunk and the maimed, and the unpredictable and ever changing sea.

One of the great strengths of this book is Worsley’s ability to inhabit the world of her characters and to capture their language and their emotions. There are secrets here, too, and the loss of loved ones and the loss and finding of identity are constant themes.

Louise is forewarned of the dangers of seafaring life. Her father and brother both went to sea and never returned, and Lou’s mother has charged her with the task of seeking news of them, especially of her brother. Lou finds and loses a loved one; and finds and loses her own identity. Rebecca suffers several devastating losses, as does her whole family; and Luke sees and experiences losses of many different kinds on land and at sea. When Lou and Luke are finally brought together the consequences are not entirely unexpected but nor are they the stuff of clichéd romances. The story does not end there, nor does it have an especially happy ending, although given the circumstances and the era that, perhaps, would not have been possible.

For a first novel, Kate Worsley’s She Rises is remarkably assured. The descriptions of shipboard life, the dangers, the sickness, the fears and terrors of it, are gripping, and the characters are likeable and (mostly) believable.  Worsley evokes the atmosphere, the people and experiences of many different places and she tells an exciting story.  The course language of the sailors, and their inability to see women as anything more than providers of gross sexual gratification, is realistic but may offend some readers; and the depiction of lesbian love and sex may offend others. Both, however, are but part and parcel of a lively and enjoyable story. She Rises certainly deserves to gain respect and a wide readership for this particular woman writer.

Copyright Ann Skea 2013
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/
Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot: http://ann.skea.com/Arielindex.html

Review: The Magnificent Desolation by Thomas O’Malley

magnificent-desolationIt is rare to find a book written in a language which so beautifully conveys its imaginative essence; or one with a title which is so exactly right. O’Malley’s writing is often lyrical and evocative and he can take the reader and his characters to places far removed from the gritty world in which they live.  And he borrows his title,This Magnificent Desolation, from the words Buzz Aldrin spoke from the surface of the moon. This first moon-landing haunts the book, as do the voices of the Apollo astronauts themselves, which ten-year-old Duncan hears through the static on his beloved ancient radio. Duncan believes that the astronauts never managed to get back to earth. He believes, too, that he remembers the moment of his birth, when God spoke to him.

Duncan has no memory of his past. He knows only what Brother Candice has told him about the terrible snow-storm, the stranded train, the deaths and the meteor shower which happened on the night his mother left him at the orphanage run by the Cappucin Grey Brothers of Mercy in northern Minnesota. His present, his life with the Brothers and with his friends Julia and Billy, are all that he knows and, although he is not the narrator of his story, his unemotional, unjudgmental view of the world and his imaginative visions shape this book.

Duncan’s memory of his mother is a dream. So, when she does come to take him from the orphanage, he has no idea how his life will change. He knows that Maggie, his mother, was once a talented singer. Now, her voice over-strained and broken, she works as a nurse and sings, at night, in a run-down bar. Maggie sings to him, cares for him, promises never to leave him again and takes him with her to the Windsor Tap, but her life is clearly hard and is often made bearable by alcohol.

Joshua McGreavey, a Vietnam veteran who is Maggie’s friend, comes and goes from their lives. He works as a tunneler on the San Padre Tunnel project seventy feet beneath San Francisco bay, and when power fails and the crew are left in darkness, not knowing what is going on, or in the interminable, slow decompression rides up in the lifts at the end of each shift, he relives the beauty and the horrors of the Vietnam jungles – but mostly the beauty. Medication dulls his memories, but the sudden death of his work-mates in a flooded tunnel hits him hard. Sometimes he disappears for long, unexplained, periods of time. Sometimes, as Duncan accidentally discovers, he fights in vicious, unregulated, fist-fights in a derelict dockyard.

O’Malley’s writes about the recent past. The world in which Duncan and Maggie and Joshua live is not the fast-moving, high-rise, modern business world, and there is something of Steinbeck in his ability to capture the atmosphere of  lives lived always on the edge of poverty, and surrounded by loss and death . But over the four years of Duncan’s life in O’Malley’s book, the harsh realities are tempered by moments of great imaginative vision. Duncan accepts people at face-value and Joshua becomes like a surrogate father to him, replacing the lost father he often thinks about, but whose identity and character Maggie will not divulge.

Joshua teaches him to ride his old Indian motorbike, and helps him when Maggie’s drinking gets out of hand. Clay, the barman at the Windsor Tap looks out for him. Julie, Billy and the Brothers at the orphanage all recur in Duncan’s dreams. And the Christmas Train, which got fatally stuck in the terrible snow-storm, and from which only Duncan and his mother survived, becomes a recurring and wonderful vision which acts as a metaphor for life. Travelling brightly-lit through the snow, full of  life, joy and beauty it encounters unpredictable disasters and death but there is also survival.

At the end of the book, Duncan, alone, boards another train, in another snow-storm, and travels, like all of us, into an unknown future with only visions and dreams to rely on.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2013

Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot: http://ann.skea.com/Arielindex.html

Review: Granta 122 by John Freeman

granta122Granta‘s theme ‘Betrayal’ offers scope for many things, from love to war, from politics to survival, and more. As usual, the pieces included come from authors around the world and their contributions are unexpected, innovative and excellent.

Janine di Giovanni, who has reported on wars for more than twenty years, begins ‘Seven Days in Syria’ with her baby son, whose tiny nails she finds herself unable to cut. She charts this same sense of vulnerability in the lives of the Syrian people as she sees the effects of war gradually seep into their lives. Her account is personal and vivid. “There is no template for war“, she writes,  only the agony, the uncertainty and the fear, which is constant.

Karen Russell, too, writes of the effects of war but she weaves a sort of magic into her fictional story. Beverly, a professional masseuse, begins therapeutic massage on an Iraqi war veteran whose body tattoo is a “skin mural” of the war-landscape on the day his friend was killed. “Healing is a magical art” said a pamphlet which attracted Beverly to her career, and her ability to empathise with a customer and to use her massage skills to feel and relax the tensions expressed in the physical body is remarkable. But her expert physical work with this particular customer has inexplicable results, the tattoo does strange things, and there are unexpected psychological effects for both of them.

As well as reportage and stories, Granta includes photography and poetry. Darcy Padilla’s photographs of ‘Julie’ chart a life affected by poverty, abuse and AIDS but they show happiness, partnerships and children as part of her struggle to survive. And John Burnside’s poem, ‘Postscript’, echoes some of Robert Frost’s well-known lines and offers a modern perspective on an evening in snowy woods. It tells of a passing moment in which a search for a mobile phone signal prompts musings on the ephemeral nature of beauty, a cup of tea, a welcoming home and “no promises to keep“. And the only path is the one back to the car.

Mohsin Hamid tells of a young boy’s text-message based love affair with a local girl who has the ambition, it is suggested, of sleeping her way to a better life. Samantha Harvey’s small-scale apocalypse-survival scenario set on a fictional island could well be a true story. André Aciman documents an editor’s experience with a young woman writer with whom he begins a strangely satisfying relationship. Neither of them seem fully able to commit themselves but perhaps it is just his reading of the situation, or perhaps he is just a man who cannot make big decisions. The result? I will not spoil the story by revealing it.

Colin Robinson learns about group loyalty and Paddleball. Ben Marcus imagines a dystopia in which group and family loyalties are tested. Lauren Wilkinson writes of the fatal attraction of guns. And Jennifer Vanderbes writes of a lone woman fire-mapper in the forests of New Mexico whose isolated life is briefly disrupted by a male forestry worker  with whom she shares friendship and memories. Both, it turns out, have reasons for choosing to work with fire.

Callan Wink’s ‘One More Last Stand’, introduces us to a man who participates in historical re-enactments of General Custer’s last stand but who is inclined to tell tall tales to tourists and to fraternize with the ‘enemy’. It can also be read on the Granta web site at http://www.granta.com/ , along with other material not included in this quarter’s magazine.

Granta 122: Betrayal  is excellent reading and a fine addition to Granta’s long tradition of fostering new writing.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2013
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/
Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot: http://ann.skea.com/Arielindex.html

Review: Schroder by Amity Gaige

What follows is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance.”

shroderSo, begins the opening statement of Schroder, and it is prefaced by the e.e.cummings poem “here is the deepest secret nobody knows“. This sounds tantalizing, especially when you know from the cover blurb that Meadow is the narrator’s six-year-old daughter and that he has abducted her. As far as he is concerned this is not a premeditated abduction, not really, he just decided on a “spontaneous trip“,  and failed to return Meadow to his estranged wife after a parental visit. Now that the law has caught up with him, he has been persuaded to write down everything that happened.

Yet, the first thing he tells us is how, as a child, he lied about his own life in order to win a major competition, and, in the process, he gave himself a false identity which he then chose to keep. By his own account, Eric Schroder, alias Kennedy, is a liar and a fraud, a man who neglects his elderly father, has forged qualifications for his c.v., has deceived his wife and her family for years and, now, has run off with his child. He is also researching ‘pauses’ and he adds footnotes to his document in order, one assumes, to impress us with his essential seriousness and intelligence.

With his glib account of his failings, his protestations of love for his estranges wife, and his hints of childhood trauma documented in interspersed fragments describing a childhood escape, with his father, from Communist East Germany, Eric Kennedy comes across as a self-serving sociopath. Whether this is what the author, Amity Gaige, intended, I don’t know, but I quickly began to lose patience with her narrator.

So why did I go on reading? I don’t know. But that’s what sociopaths do – they draw you in, tell you just enough to make their actions sound plausible and justified, and play on your emotions to keep you hooked.

Yes, by the time I got to the end of Eric’s story I did feel sorry for the things which happened to him in his childhood. I did think that maybe they might explain why he had chosen a different identity and had made up a different childhood for himself. And I did understand how he came to live a lie. I also understood how he loved Meadow and how he justified his own actions once he and Meadow were evading the law.. But I couldn’t forgive him for never phoning Meadow’s mother – the wife he said he loved so much – to let her know that their child was safe and well. And I couldn’t forgive his self-indulgence or his casual parenting, which ultimately put Meadow’s life in danger. Given his lifelong skill at weaving stories and convincing people of his essential.honesty, I wouldn’t trust this narrative to be completely true, either. And  I  certainly would never advise his wife to take him back.

In Shroeder, Amity Gaig has created a character who is so persuasive and convincing that you begin to believe in him, although you know you shouldn’t. Bit in the end it is her skill at evoking tender emotions, the complexity of family relationships,  the joys and the worries of parenthood, and the thrill and danger of unexpected  adventures, which makes his narrative compelling.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2013
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/
Sylvia Plath, Ariel and the Tarot: http://ann.skea.com/Arielindex.html

Review: Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

summerscaleKate Summerscale’s book is more than just the story of a Victorian wife’s romantic indiscretions and a scandalous divorce case. It is a glimpse of a changing society. One in which a  woman’s sexuality could be discussed in terms of hysteria and insanity caused by disorders of the womb. One in which gynaecology and psychology were new medical disciplines and homeopathy, phrenology and hydropathy were accepted and resorted to by such eminent figures as the Brontes, George Eliot (Mary Evans), Darwin,  Dickens and even members of the Royal family. And one in which the new Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes was established, making divorce easier and less expensive to obtain on the grounds of adultery and (for women petitioners) one additional “matrimonial offence” (i.e. desertion, cruelty, bigamy, rape, sodomy or bestiality). The law was beginning to recognize a married woman’s rights and the need to protect her  property, but a husband could still claim custody of his children and, as in the Robinsons’ case, ownership of all his wife’s papers.

Isabella Robinson was an intelligent, well-read and imaginative woman. In 1844, as a thirty-one-year -old widow with one child, she married Henry Robinson, a successful civil engineer whose business building steam-ships and sugar-cane mills often took him overseas. Henry already had a mistress and two illegitimate children, and he proved to be, in Isabella’s words, an “uncongenial partner…uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, proud“. He also persuaded her to hand him control of the money which had been settled on her by her father.

Isabella’s real misfortune was that like many lonely, romantically inclined women of her day, she was fatally inclined to foster romantic obsessions and to confide her most secret thoughts to her “secret friend” – her diary. How much of what she wrote there about her “wretchedest and wickedest hours” was romantic fiction, modeled on such books as Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, we will never know, but when her husband discovered the diary and read it he was incensed and determined to ruin the man Isabella had set her heart on. A Divorce Court judge, too, deemed it convincing enough to consider Henry’s petition for divorce for three months before pronouncing judgement.

The case was a public sensation and poor Isabella had to endure parts of her diary being read out in court and published in the newspapers. Fictional diaries were popular reading at the time but Isabella’s was, apparently, shocking fact. She was deemed by one newspaper editor to be either “as foul and abandoned a creature as ever wore woman’s shape” or to be a madwoman. And insanity was one plea open to Isabella in her own defence.

Summerscale’s research for this book sits lightly on a scandalous story but her endnotes show the care she has taken.  Like the well-known sequence of paintings ‘Past and Present’ by Leopold Egg, which depict the discovery and the sad results of a wife’s indiscretions, divorce was still a disaster for women and, too often, for their children as well. And although I never really warmed to Isabella in spite of her plight and the prolonged ordeal she underwent, Summerscale kept me reading to the end, when the result of the court case and the outcome for all those involved is revealed. I will not spoil the suspense by revealing what it was.

Buy the book here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2013

Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: The City of Devi by Manil Suri

city-of-deviThe first third of this book is about sex: love and sex; sex and love. In the first five chapters, Sarita remembers how she fell in love with Karun and the details of  her increasingly adventurous attempts to get him to consummate their marriage. The next five chapters deal with Jaz’s homosexual seduction of Karun, his gradual falling in love with him and their subsequent parting. The sex is imaginative but leaves little to the imagination. Now, however, Karun has disappeared and Sarita and Jaz are trying to find him.

All this is set in a dystopian world in which Pakistan is at war with India and has set a date for a nuclear attack on Mumbai (where the novel is set); dirty bombs have exploded in Zurich, New York, London and other world cities; all communication networks have broken down; Hindu and Muslim extremist groups have taken over parts of the city and are undertaking murderous religious persecution; and SuperDevi, a Bollywood/Hollywood epic has captured popular imagination and fostered a cult which is being used by the power-hungry Bhim, leader of the extremist, right-wing, Hindu Rashtriya Manch, to further his own interests. Oh, and Sarita is taking Karun a pomegranate!

It would be easy to parody the events which make up the rest of this book. The miraculous escapes, the Bollywood style Devi celebrations, Jaz’s camp cousin ‘Aunty’ Rahim who helps them escape the Muslim Limbus thugs, the final sexual consummation which almost qualifies for nomination for the Bad Sex Award, and the predictable ending, all these are the stuff of Bond movies. And Sarita’s ability to be relatively unaffected by the horrors she witnesses and the personal dramas she experiences, keeps her character shallow and undeveloped.

However, Manil Suri writes well and he knows how create interesting characters, how to structure and tell a good story, how to describe the horrors of war, and how to capture the variety, flavour, excesses and beauty of Indian life.

An advertising puff on the back cover of the book quotes the Independent as saying that “Manil Suri has been likened to Narayan, Coetzee, Naipaul, Chekhov and Flaubert”. One wonders who made that comparison. It is nonsense. Perhaps if publishers exaggerated less, I would be less judgmental. Suri has certainly “developed a voice of his own” but a little less sex, a bit more realism in the plot, and some development of the serious issues touched on in the book, might make this book less of a romantic thriller and more like the “huge novel” that the advertising claims.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2013
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: The Robber of Memories by Michael Jacobs

9781847084071The Columbian folk-tale figure of the Robber of Memories haunts this book in many different ways. Michael Jacobs’ journey to the source of the Magdalena River in Columbia is a record of his travels but it is also about memory and loss – about history, conflict, disappeared people, and about personal experiences of loss.  Jacobs’ father died of Alzheimer’s’ and his Italian-born mother is suffering from severe memory loss and dementia. “I needed to believe”, Jacobs writes, “that certain thoughts and memories would always remain, strong enough to counteract any sense of emptiness ahead…as you continue travelling upriver, towards an enigmatic source”.

Jacobs’ journey through Columbia from the mouth of the river to its source is full of memorable moments, full of excitement, ennui, pleasure, fear, and full, too, of the people he meets and sometimes travels with. Inspired by a chance meeting with Gabriel Garcia Márquez at a literary festival in the Columbian coastal town of Cartagena, Jacobs began a journey which had long been his dream. Fluent in Spanish, and with many literary connections, he managed to travel from the mouth of the River – The Mouth of Ashes – to its source in the “moorland landscape of bogs, boulders and bare peaks” of  the Páramo de Las Papas (the Moorland of the Potatoes) – a name which Jacobs deems “wholly inappropriate to the otherworldly scenery”.

He travels by various means: on a tug captained by the exuberant, pessimistic and possibly unstable Diomidio; by launch and a tiny tug to the turbulent river mouth; by car to various towns which have particular memories for him – historical and literary; and by passenger-service chalupa (“like a covered metal coffin”). Ultimately, half-falling from a horse along treacherous, slippery paths, and then on foot, he reaches his goal, but the events which occur on this final stage of his journey are frightening and worrying.

In spite of the ever present danger of being a British traveller in a country where kidnapping of foreigners is still a very real threat, Jacobs’ persistent worry was his mother. Intermittently in touch with her carers by Columbian cellphone, he expected at any time to be called back to Britain. The pull of family prompts memories of his mother’s younger days, and he remembers extracts from the diaries he inherited after his father’s death, which fill out the story of his parents’ wartime meeting and marriage. Memories, too, of the novels of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and of the symptoms of memory-loss which he recognized in him when they met, intrude on his travels. But for a thoughtful writer who once studied at London’s Warburg Institute, over the entrance to which is inscribed the word Mnemosyne (the Goddess of Memory) this involvement with memories is perhaps to be expected.

Altogether, this is an unusual travel book in which the river, the country and its delights and horrors, history and adventure are interwoven with Jacobs’ personal worries and his discoveries, delights and pleasures in a moving and thought-provoking way.

Buy the book here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

lighthouseFuth is in his forties, newly separated from his wife, and taking a walking holiday in Germany. He hasn’t been doing much walking recently but he plans on doing fifteen miles a day and coming home fit and tanned. And he remembers walking with his mother and father as a child and, especially, a sunny day on the cliff tops just before his mother left them both to disappear in the USA. He was twelve when that happened, and his father  became unpredictably violent, so he would keep out of his way much of the time.

Futh is, above all, ordinary. He is unassertive, has rather limited social skills, and always inspects the escape routes from his hotel rooms in case of fire. His talisman, which he always keeps with him, is a silver lighthouse which once housed a bottle of his mother’s violet-scented perfume. But lighthouses, as the books’ epigram tells us, not only send out kindly light, they also wan of the rocks beneath. Futh’s life seems always to have more rocks than most.

Alison Moore’s book is deceptively simple. We come to understand Futh through countless ordinary details of his life and through his fragmented memories. Between the chapters about Futh, there are others about Ester, the wife of the hotel-keeper at whose hotel Futh starts and ends his journey. Esther craves attention from her violently possessive husband Bernard, who mostly ignores her. She compensates for this by taking casual lovers. Futh is not one of them but he becomes involved, all unknowingly, and the results are disastrous.

Esther life, like Futh’s is little different to that of most people. And it is this ordinariness and the small details of the characters’ day-to-day behavior which, at the end of the book, prompt questions about the accidents of life. Are our personalities shaped by nature or nurture (or lack of nurture)? Is the pattern of your lives determined by Fate? Does the appearance of Venus fly-traps at various parts of this story suggest that we are just like flies in the biological struggle for survival?

Nothing about Alison Moore’s story is as obvious as these questions but her smooth and subtle control of the reader’s mood and emotions has, in the end, enormous impact.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

swimming-homeA body in the swimming pool is always a good start. But this is no ordinary mystery story. And Kitty Finch is no ordinary body.

Her appearance at the tourist villa which the Jacobs have rented disturbs everyone – Joe, Isabel and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Nina, and their friends Mitchell and Laura. Jurgen, the German hippy caretaker, and their neighbour, Madeleine Sheridan, also feel the impact of her presence.

Kitty herself is an enigma. She is a copper-haired botanist with green fingernails; a poet; an attractive young woman who favours walking around naked; and a disturbed and disturbing presence.

Deborah Levy’s book is strange and unusual in its structure and its style. Her chapters are short, and their titles enigmatic: ‘Walls that open and close’, ‘Body Electric’, ‘Money is Hard’. We follow the events of each day of one week after the appearance of Kitty,  and Levy conveys the moods and thoughts of her characters through seemingly random remarks and actions. Each has their own problems and secrets, their own view of the world, and their own fears, desires and confusions. Each has their own particular response to Kitty. But nothing is spelled out and the tension mounts. The week begins and ends with a body in the swimming pool but the final chapter of the book is given to Nina – her memories and her dreaming conversations with her father.

This is a curious novel, full of psychological insight, but Tom MacCarthy’s ‘Afterword’, with its mention of Deborah Levy’s reading in Lacan, Deleuze, Barthes, Duras, Stein and Ballard risks making it seem like a dry academic exercise. His assessment of what he calls the “kaleidoscopic narrative” in this book adds more name-dropping confusion and is superfluous unless its readers are bent on deconstructing the text rather than enjoying a stimulating and interesting book.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: Cézanne: A Biography by Alex Danchev

I am an ordinary reader who knows a little about art but I am no expert. I already like Cézanne’s later work but I know nothing about him, and I hoped that this book would tell me more about his life and about his work. It did both these things but I found it a most frustrating book to read, not just because the text is discursive but also because the layout of the book makes it hard to read.

The book is well illustrated, with small colour reproductions of work by Cézanne and other artists grouped together in three sections. There are also back-and-white drawings and photographs scattered throughout the text. However, the coloured illustrations are not in the order in which they are mentioned in the text, which means that one has to page back-and-forth through the book to find them. To take just two examples: in a single paragraph dealing with self-portraits the colour plates referred to are numbers 3, 28 and 25. All are in the first group of illustrations, but separated from each other by five or six pages. In another place, a portrait reproduced in plate 5 (front section) is compared with one reproduced in plate 59 (back section). To add to the problems, the black-and-white illustrations have no information with them and must be looked up by page-number at the front of the book; and the numerous notes, many of which are worth reading, are collected at the back of the book. The constant need to refer to different parts of a hefty book is cumbersome and irritating, and there is no built-in book-mark to make it easy to return to your place in the text.

As to the text: Danchev is clearly an art expert and he is very familiar with the world in which Cézanne lived and painted. But he often expects the reader to know as much about that Paris art scene and the artists and dealers involved in it as he does. Some names (Monet, Manet, Ronoir, for example)  are very well-known, some (like Achille Emperaire) much less so. He also jumps about in time to quote from a huge range of sources many of which have nothing to do with Cézanne but which just happen to include a felicitous phrase which Danchev wants to borrow. And not only does he deal with Cézanne’s life but he also describes, fairly extensively at  times, the lives of his family and friends. Some of this is interesting but too much of it is digression and Cézanne’s life gets somewhat lost in the process.

This is not helped by the seemingly random inclusion of five sections which deal with Cézanne’s self-portraits and are entitled ‘The Brooder’, ‘The Desperado’, ‘The Dogged’, ‘The Plasterer’, and ‘The Inscrutable’ . Only belatedly, and after some confusion, did I realize that these sections were self-contained and not a consecutive part of the story.

Both Zola and Pissaro were Cézanne’s close friends, and they are legitimately written about and quoted at length, but often Zola’s novels are taken as commentary on Cézanne’s life, as are the novels of other authors. Diary entries written by friends and friends-of-friends, and reported conversations between Cézanne’s friends and acquaintances, are also used fairly extensively. These may or may not throw light on the man himself.

Cézanne’s wife has a chapter to herself in an attempt to redress her customary neglect by Cézanne’s biographers. However, Danchev’s account of her relies on two rather formal letters which she wrote; and Cézanne’s many portraits of her, in each of which she looks different.The most Danchev can say in the end is that the “soul” of Hortense, “Le Boule (the Ball or Dumpling)” as Cézanne’s friends called her, “is encoded in the upper lip” in her portraits.

So, did I enjoy reading the book? No.

Did I learn anything from it about Cézanne and his art? Yes. There are valuable insights into his character and his art. I learned that Cézanne was independent, determined (“balsy” is a favourite adjective of Danchev’s), hard-working, touchy about celebrity when it came, and dismissive of the trappings of success. He pursued his unique approach to his art regardless of the opinion of others, and his work influenced artists like Picasso and Braque, and has gone on influencing artists ever since..

For those with patience, there amusing and interesting parts to this book and insights to be gained.

Buy the book here…

Ann Skea
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: Country Girl by Edna O’Brien

Those who know Edna O’Brien’s work will instantly feel at home in this autobiographical memoir: not just because it reads like one of her novels, but also because O’Brien’s fiction has always drawn on her Irish roots and on places and events in her own life.

The book begins with two dreams set at her childhood home in County Clare: Drewsboro House. In one dream she sees a grand burning house, which she is barred from entering by liveried soldiers. In the second, she is in the room in which she was born, where “alone, incarcerated”  she is  “to answer for my crimes”. Both dreams find echoes in her memoir and, in a recent interview, she described the house as being like a metaphor for the whole world – full of ructions, sensuality, prayers, curses, doom and life.

Drewsboro was built on the ruins of a very grand house which had been burned to the ground during the Troubles in the 1920s. O’Brien’s father, who had helped it burn, came from a family which had become wealthy in America and they bought the land. The new house had pretensions – two avenues, big lawns shaded by ancient trees, and bay windows: but it owed some of its stylishness to houses her mother, who came from a poor family, had seen whilst working as a maid in America.  O’Brien’s father had been rich but the money was soon gone due to profligacy, drink and gambling. In drink, too, he could be violent, and O’Brien and her mother were scared of him. Yet it was not an unhappy childhood. As a child, she has said, they were part poor and would run out of money, but they were also immensely rich in reading, poetry, mythology and dreams.

A writer’s imaginative life “commences in childhood” but O’Brien’s has clearly been shaped, too, by all that has happened to her over the years.This memoir is not just about her rebellion against her family and against the oppressive, divided society in which she grew up. It is also about her marriage, her divorce, an acrimonious battle for custody of her children, her life as a single mother – cooking cleaning and writing, her parties and her publications.

Sometimes O’Brien’s memoir seems very like her early novels as she shares the same settings, the same rebelliousness and the same need for love and for change as her fictional girls. Sometimes it seems like a sequence of short stories, imaginatively written and compelling.  And sometimes the writing is fluent and poetic; the descriptions beautiful.

Sometimes, however, she cannot resist turning an agonizing memory in to a dramatic (or melodramatic) moment:  “Coming back into my own sitting room, I saw it, the stone of the green ring that I had taken off the night before, reflected in the metal of his latch-key, which he had left on the mantelpiece. He was gone”.

And sometimes the list of famous names is overwhelming. Richard Burton drops in one evening and recites Shakespeare to her. Paul McCartney improvises a song for her sleeping son. Marlon Brando drinks milk in her kitchen and asks if she’s ticklish. Marianne Faithfull, Diane Cilento, Roger Vadim, Jane Fonda, Judy Garland and Shirley MacLaine and others come to her parties in Putney. And, in New York, Al Pacino, Carlos Fuentes, Yevtushenko and their partners attend her party; famous people surround her; and Jackie Onassis invites her to dinner and becomes a confiding friend.

In the 1960s, O’Brien’s first novels – A Country GirlThe Lonely Girls and Girls in their Married Bliss – were banned by the censor in Ireland for their frank sexual content and their so-called ridiculing of priests and nuns. The ructions caused by these books (which were written whilst she lived in London) certainly affected her life, but as two eminent Irish writers of the 1960s enviously thought, they probably were “a hot ticket to fame and recognition”, even though she had thought them to be simple tales of the lives and dreams of two young Irish girls. Being called a ‘Jezebel’, mortifying her mother and being shunned by her own people did alter the direction of her life. But it did not stop her writing. Today, those early book appear mild compared, for example, to Roddy Doyle’s graphic depictions of Irish life; and to the media reports of the iniquities perpetrated by priests. O’Brien, now, is so well accepted in Ireland that a plaque has been place in her honour at the entrance to Drewsboro House.

In her acknowledgments, O’Brien says that she was reluctant to write a memoir, and she has described the process of reliving certain times as bringing pain and anger. But in her final chapter she brings together her two countries, Ireland and England: two countries which, she says, “warred, jostled and made friends inside me, like the two halves of my warring self”. The war, it seems is over, but the celebration of life is not, and the final image in the book is of her at home in a lamp-lit room which seems “full of light, like a room readying itself for a banquet”.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: The Jewels of Paradise by Donna Leon

Caterina Pellegrini is a young Venetian musicologist hired to find the truthful heir to an alleged treasure concealed by a once-famous baroque composer”: “A gripping tale of Intrigue, Music and Obsession

The publicity material for this book says that it is based on the true story of the composer Agostino Steffani – with “months and months of research” by author, Donna Leon, and musicologist, Cecilia Bartoli. Sadly, the months and months of research show through and most of this book consists of Dottoressa Caterina Pelligrini’s far from gripping trawl through old documents, computer archives and obscure and complex history, larded with words and phrases in Venetian dialect, many of which cannot be found in an ordinary Italian-English dictionary.

If you are an academic researcher you may warm to the daily work of Dottoressa Pellegrini as she investigates the contents of two ancient chests which once belonged to Bishop/composer/possible castrato, Agostino Steffani.

If you love baroque music you may be interested by the discussions of well-known and lesser-known libretti, aria and musicology of a few famous and not-so-famous composers.

If you have visited Venice, you will probably recognize the various famous places Caterina walks past or mentions as she moves around the city from workplace to library (the Marciana) to her accommodation and the home of her parents. However, unless you have a map if Venice in front of you or a photographic memory of the City’s labyrinth of narrow streets and canals, the street names mentioned in her very restricted peregrinations will mean little to you.

Each of the characters in the book is carefully described, but most of them remain as wooden and spot-lit as ‘The Bears’, which is Caterina’s name for the family she sees once or twice through their lit kitchen window across the “calle” from her apartment. If you have never been to Venice and don’t know what a “calle” is, you won’t find it in the dictionary. A general computer search will tell you that it is Spanish for ‘street’ – but how it came to be part of the Venetian dialect I never discovered.

All of these things exemplify the problems I had with this book. Scattering foreign dialect words and phrases in a text does not provide local colour: it is just annoying, unless you know their meaning. Long descriptions of research techniques are boring and add nothing to the story. Caterina’s learned musings on musicology are admirable but of passing interest; and her descriptions of complex historical intrigues involving kings, Electors, princesses, mistresses, churchmen and, possibly, Steffani are sometimes hard to follow.

The story itself is thin and relies on all these devices to bulk it out. There is one fleeting hint of danger; a passing suggestion of romance; and an ending which is anti-climatic, hedged, as it is, by Caterina’s already hinted at questioning of the meaning of ‘treasure’. The happy ending in the final paragraph is just trite.

Donna Leon is an American academic and writer who has travelled widely and is an expert on opera. She has lived in Venice for the past thirty years, and her series of detective stories featuring  the Venetian Commissario Brunetti is well-loved and highly regarded. The cover ofThe Jewels of Paradise carries praise for her work from the Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian but, as is common practice now, the praise is not for this book but for some earlier unspecified book or books. Sadly, The Jewels of Paradise is not deserving of such praise.

Buy the book here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: The Misunderstanding by Irène Némirovsky

There is an old-fashioned style about this book. Not just because it was written in the 1920s and is set in France just after the First World War, but because Némirovsky writes in a way which is more leisurely and descriptive than is customary now. Her character live at a more leisurely pace. Social status is more important and social conventions are more fixed. In spite of that, and in spite of the seeming sentimentality of the situation she depicts, Némirovsky creates characters who are increasingly swayed by the harsh realities of life, her psychological perception is acute and her social irony is often sharp. She tells a simple story of an adulterous love affair and she tells it beautifully, but there are depths to this book which are still relevant today.

Her hero, Yves Harteloup was, she tells us, born in 1890 – “that divine, decadent era when there were still men in Paris who had absolutely nothing to do” . But all that has changed. Now, like many other men of his class, he has returned from the horrors of war, his parents have died, his inheritance has all but gone, and he leads the routine, dreary life of an employee. Having carefully saved enough money to take a holiday in a favourite Basque resort of his childhood, he meets and becomes infatuated with a young woman whose husband is still wealthy and who still leads a life of luxury and boredom. Denise, wants love, romance and excitement. She falls in love with Yves but their two lives, which once would have been very similar, are now very different and the expectations of each are different.

Yves, is a three-times decorated battle survivor and his war-time experiences have scarred him mentally as well as physically. He had once lived the life of a rich young man and had mistresses. Now he is disillusioned, afraid of intimacy, afraid of loss, and is living just within his means although he is still known and accepted in wealthy circles. He is infatuated with Denise, yet cannot give her the excitement and the constant reassurance of his love that she needs. Her demands begin to irritate him but he is upset when she is unhappy.

Denise, who is outgoing and talkative, cannot understand his need for peace and reassurance. She cannot understand why he will not commit himself and voice his love, and his silence baffles and upsets her. She is thoughtless about his office commitments and about his strained financial situation. But she is desperately unhappy when she cannot be with him.

Neither fully understands the needs of the other, and their different situations gradually pull them apart.

Irène Némirovsky was only twenty-one when she wrote this book but she had already known fear, insecurity and the vast changes brought about by war. She was born in 1903 in Kiev, daughter of a successful Jewish banker. When she was fourteen her family fled from the Russian Revolution, first to Finland then, the following year, to Paris. They arrived there just at the end of the First World War. Irène studied at the Sorbonne and, at eighteen, she began to write novels. She went on to be widely recognized as a major writer but in 1940, with Paris under German Occupation, she was prevented from any further publishing.  In 1942, she was arrested as a stateless person of Jewish descent and she subsequently died of typhus in Auschwitz.

Némirovsky’s books have only recently been translated from the French and The Misunderstanding, which was her first novel, displays the sharpness and perception which made her such a success. Above all, it captures the fragile and fleeting nature of happiness.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

I should say from the start that I am not a laugh-out-loud reader of funny books. So, this book is not my usual sort of reading. However, Jonas Jonasson is a superb teller of tall tales; and enough people have found this book hilarious (so the publisher’s blurb tells me) for it to have been translated into 35 languages. If that is so, then for those who appreciate bizarre stories it will be a delight.

The plot is, like the title, ingenious. Allan Karlsson is about to celebrate his 100th birthday in an Old Folks home in Sweden but he doesn’t want a party.  “The Mayor will be there. The press will be there. But, as it turns out, Allan will not…” As it turns out, too, Allan has never in his life done anything he didn’t want to do. Not for long, anyway. So he climbs out of his bedroom window, heads for the local bus-station, buys himself a fifty-crown ticket on the next bus out and, taking a suitcase with him which has been left in his charge by a young man who urgently needed to use the rest-room, he rides off into the sunset (so to speak).

The suitcase, of course, turns out to be full of money. The owner turns out to be a member of a violent gang. Bad-tempered Director Alice at the Old Folks home has discovered that Allan is missing. And so the chase begins.

There are characters alive and (subsequently) dead, incompetent gangsters, thieves, ne’er-do-wells, baffled police, unexpected plot-twists…..and an elephant.

Woven into the plot is Allan’s eventful life story. As a skilled demolitions expert (although not always a very careful one) he has travelled the world and amongst the important people he has met and befriended are  President Truman, Mao Tse-tung, Stalin, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Kim Il Sung and Einstein and family (not necessarily in that order). He has also been actively involved in most of the history-making events of the twentieth century, including the Spanish Civil War and the Manhattan project.

Eventually, of course, the police catch up with Allan, his friends and the suitcase. But, master of tall stories that he is, Allan excels himself in sorting it all out. Even the elephant looks set to live happily ever-after.

Ingenious, cleverly done and fast-paced, this is a tall tale told by an expert story-teller.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

Why do we travel? What is travel? Is it tourism or migration; voluntary or necessary? Something driven by restlessness, curiosity, a desire to learn and see new things or the need to escape?

Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel tells the stories of two very different people: Laura, an Australian woman for whom travel has been an essential part of her life in many different ways; and Ravi, a Sri Lankan man who arrives in Australia as an asylum seeker after experiencing devastating events in his home country. De Kretser quotes a fragment of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, ‘Questions of Travel’ , as a preface to her novel and, through the lives of Laura and Ravi, she explores many of the same questions. But  for both Laura and Ravi, Elizabeth Bishop’s final question – “Should we have stayed at home / Wherever that may be?” – is left unanswered.

Laura, inheriting money from an aunt who has filled her childhood with stories of far-off places, begins her travels in a very Australian way. In the 1980s, she drops out of art-school and sets off with her back-pack to Bali. It is part of de Kretser’s skill that in just a few lines she can convey the common experience of  first-time travelers. For Laura, the marvel that “This is Asia and I am in it” is accompanied by familiar Australian voices in the streets and bars, yet “It was nothing like home”. Her experiences in Bali, too, are common, including her rapid attachment to the local family in whose home she stays and her resolve (never kept) to keep in touch with them.

From Bali, Laura travels through India and then to London, where she finds that every bridge embodies a sonnet, every monument is iconic, and everything is familiar. “That is what it means to be Australian”, she concludes, “You come to London for the first time and discover what you already know”. She rents  cheap rooms, learns local customs, gets homesick on hearing an Australian voice in a crowd, and, “armed with a railway pass”, she explores Europe. By the 1990s, she is back in London working as a waitress, then as a house-sitter. She makes friends and then takes over a friend’s flat in Naples and lives there long enough to come to love it. For a while, work as a travel-writer keeps her on the move to many and varied places but, in 2000, she returns to Sydney and takes a job with the publishers of popular travel-guides.

Meanwhile, in interwoven chapters, we follow Ravi’s life in Sri Lanka. We meet his family, his friends, his wife and his small son. We learn of his wife’s work as a civil rights activist, and of the civil strife and atrocities which she reports. Michelle de Kretser lives in Sydney but she grew up in Sri Lanka and she conveys the culture, the delights and the tensions of that country simply, vividly and with great skill. So, too, does she convey Ravi’s encounters with Australian culture and Australians whilst, from 2000 to 2004, he lives the uncertain life of an asylum seeker in Sydney: the  casual rudeness of Sydneysiders (“Geddout the fuckin way, mate”, from a jogger on a headland path); the generosity; the beauty of the place and the unfamiliar Australian passion for nature (“he got through bushwalking by looking forward to lunch”); the inter-State rivalries (“If you live more than thirty-minutes from the beach you might as well live in Melbourne”); and Ravi’s amazement at the valuable things people throw out as garbage.

Ravi works first as an assistant in an aged-care home, then as an IT specialist at the same travel-guide publishing firm as Laura. Ravi and Laura do meet, but their lives are never close. Laura’s many different relationships, friends and lovers are a natural and important part of her story. Ravi’s encounters with Australian families, friends, neighbours and fellow workers are less close but equally absorbing. For both, the question  “Why am I here?” crops up occasionally. For both, ‘home’ has different and often changing meanings.

Questions of Travel is a beautifully produced book and it comes wreathed in praise from writers such as Hilary Mantel and A.S. Byatt, and from reviewers for the USA’sNew Statesman, the Australian Sydney Morning Herald and the UK’s Sunday Times. Not all the praise is for Questions of Travel but all attests to de Kretser’s skill as an imaginative and accomplished writer of evocative prose which brings her characters to life and is full of suspense and psychological depth. I agree with all of this. Her ability to covey a vivid image in just a few words is enviable. I enjoyed Ravi’s suburban vision of “novel galaxies”  “Sleep World, Carpet World”; the familiarity of Laura’s office environment “where only Windows opened” and “Twenty-three emails replying to the email about gym membership” have been copied to her; and her description (as a Sydenysider used to pounding surf) of the “mincing sea where Shelley drowned” in La Spezia in Italy. Occasionally de Kretser’s images were so novel that they left me flummoxed. I have no idea what a gargoyle wearing “a cockroach veil” after a Sydney rainstorm looks like, but the “broken bodies of Umbrellas” exactly describes what I saw, not in Sydney as Laura did but in windswept Amsterdam.

Altogether, I found Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel to be an enjoyable, absorbing, well-written and thought-provoking book.

Buy the book here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Book Review: The Jaguar’s Dream by John Kinsella

This book of poems is described in the press release as “A personal journey through the works of poets that most influenced Kinsella’s work“. Kinsella himself describes it as “creating responses, translations, versions, distractions, takes, adaptations and interpolations“. He goes on to say that “the poems are ‘my’ poems in so far as my own biography and experiences necessarily inform their references, conceits and dynamic responses“. The book is, he says, “an attempt to bring the work of poets from other languages I admire into the language I speak and think with most days“.

Sadly, this turns out to be a book for specialists. If you can understand the Latin titles and fragments of Latin text; if you are very familiar with the stories told by Virgil and Ovid and with the background in which Apollinaire and Tristan Tzara wrote their poems; and if you are happy to look up translations of the works of less well-known poets from Classical times to the 20th Century (most of which are easily available on the Internet), then this book may be for you. If not, you are likely to feel, at best, baffled; at worst, excluded from some elitist intellectual club where such things are considered to be the norm.

Some of the poems do stand alone with no need for recourse to the work which inspired them or to the mythologies or poetic ‘fashions’ , times or cultures in which the originals were written. Those poems which work best and show Kinsella’s own poetic style best, are his versions of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, where he transposes the story of Aeneas’s journey through the underworld to the Wheatbelt of Western Australia, via the Nullabor, the Great Australian Bight and Mount Magnet. Two of these poems, in particular, reflect Kinsella’s usual ecological concerns and are fine original poems: ‘On the devastating fallout of the war waged by humans around the earth as witnessed in the Chittering Valley’, (which has a dedication ‘for Cate Blanchett’); and ‘Two gates of sleep: Death of trees in catchment’.

At the opposite extreme to these poems, Kinsella’s ‘Approximation: Extracted Ode to Tzara’ is as meaningless to me as any other Dadaist random compilation of words. And his ‘Zone (Echidna): A Take on Apollinaire’ is certainly ‘Surrealist’ but unlike Apollinaire’s ‘Zone’ it has no coherent meaning that I can divine. As to Kinsella’s excursion into Villon’s ‘Jargon Poems’, which he tells us were described by the London ‘Daily News’ in 1895 as being as obscure to the ordinary reader of French “as if the language was Coptic or Romany, Basque or Gaelic”, I was equally lost by Kinsella’s English ‘translations’.

The Jaguar’s Dream is an attractive title. Unusually for me, page after page of my review copy of the book now had scribbled comments in the margins: question marks; exact translations of Latin and French phrases (which I had to look up); fragments of mythology (which I also had to look up); expressions of  puzzlement, exclamation marks and underlining when I was lost to understanding the meaning or the syntax. I am no stranger to complex poetry and I am always ready to discover something new. I began the book hoping that Kinsella’s stated aim of introducing the reader to some lesser-known poets would lead me to some inspiring new work but I was disappointed.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard C. Morais

Buddhaland Brooklyn is the story of a middle-aged, Japanese Buddhist priest, Seido Oda, who, after a quiet life creating and teaching art in his mountainside monastery in Japan, is suddenly sent to New York to lead a group of American believers and to manage the construction of a new Buddhist temple there.

Seido Oda tells his own story and it is soon apparent that he is not a man who will adapt to change easily. Culture shock is, of course, inevitable. He has to learn to cope with the boldness, variety and energy of Americans, and there is confusion and humour to be found in misunderstandings of language and situations, but that is not unusual. What is more unusual are his encounters with the various members of his new ‘flock’. Often their behaviour offends his Japanese sensibilities but he must also learn to cope with their idiosyncratic interpretations of Buddhism.

Richard Morais set himself a difficult challenge when, as an American with no Japanese ancestry, he chose to write as a Japanese Buddhist priest. Not only does he try to convey the family life and the cultural milieu in which Seido Oda grew up, he also writes an insider’s view of the Buddhist Headwaters Sect in which  his priest lives from the age of eleven. It helps that the sect is Morais’ own invention and that modern life has impinged on it in many ways, but I did not always find his interpretation of either of these two cultures convincing. Even the frequent use of Japanese words and phrases, references to famous Japanese art works and a scattering of haiku by Basho and Issa, seemed to me to be contrived, rather than a natural part of Seido Oda’s life. Nevertheless, Morais tells a good story and his many American characters are vividly drawn and often funny.

Reverend Oda is a likeable character, even in his stolid acceptance of the foibles of his American ‘Believers’. “How could I explain”, he comments after meeting Arthur Symes, an elevator-sales magnate, “that increased elevator sales were not proof that Buddhist prayers worked”.  He faces a variety of predicaments, including the suicide of a mentally disturbed young man he had tried to help, and he learns much about America and about himself in the process.

Morais’ descriptive writing is often evocative and beautiful, and his extensive study of Buddhist texts is apparent from his acknowledgements pages, but this is not a serious novel about religion or culture. It is a simple, very human story of Seido Oda’s life and experiences. If Morais does have any message for us, it is in Seido Oda’s own acceptance of his fate. “The life of man is like a ball in the river”, he tells us at the beginning of the book, “the Buddhist texts state – no matter what our will wants or desires, we are swept along by an invisible current that finally delivers us to the limitless expanse of the black sea”.  And at the end of the book, as an elderly man looking back over the life he has just described for us and musing on his struggles, he concludes: “I now believe enlightenment is a simple state: it is the ability to suffer what there is to suffer; it is the ability to enjoy what there is to enjoy. To understand that, truly, is enlightenment.

Buy the book here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: Londoners by Craig Taylor

Craig Taylor is Canadian, but after living for several years in London and growing attached to the place he began to ask “What is a Londoner?”. It seems that there are almost as many answers to that question as there are people living in London but my favourite is that ” a real Londoner would never, ever,ever eat at one of those bloody Angus bloody Steak Houses in the West End”. I like it, firstly, because I grew up in London before there ever was an Angus Steak House in the West End; and secondly, because I have never, ever, ever eaten in one. However, I am sure there must be some Londoners who have.

In search of an answer, Craig Taylor interviewed some 200 people all over London and even some who had left London to live elsewhere. He interviewed anyone and everyone, from those in high places (and not just workers in the office towers at Canary Wharf but also high office holders like the Under-Sheriff and Secondary of London), to a street sweeper, a manicurist, and, of course, one or two taxi drivers. Tourists, immigrants, those who love London and those who hate it; teacher, squatter, Wiccan priestess, hedge-fund manager, currency trader, a couple who live in the Tower of London (try ordering a take-away Pizza from that address!), people in the arts, market traders, nurses, all have a voice in this book. We hear their language, their opinions, their likes and dislikes.

Even as a Londoner, I learned things I didn’t know before and had glimpses of life in London which I hardly knew existed. I learned, for example, that around the back of the Planetarium, just off Baker Street, there is a block of flats with a whole set of train parts stuck into the top of the building. And I learned that according to Mistress Absolute, a dominatrix, London is one of the kinkiest cities in the world. I was fascinated by the funeral director’s account of the changes in his profession which immigrants to his local area have caused; and by the career change which brought London its only black, dread-locked, female plumber. I was also intrigued to hear from fast-talking, fashion conscious “Smartie”, an East-Ender who conned his way onto the bank’s market trading floor by making up his c.v. and who reckons that half the traders in the futures market (the best ones, of course) were originally barrow boys who “came from market stalls…were rough and ready…edgy…streetwise, and “who could add up numbers easily”.

There is such variety and so much interest in the eighty accounts in this book that it is hard to pick out favourites. It is, in fact, just like London: full of life and spirit, full of the varied people who generate energy and excitement, and full of ordinary people who keep the whole city running. The sub-title of the book says it all: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long For It – Londoners.

Buy the book here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

REVIEW: The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa

Some will know of the Irishman, Roger Casement, because of the infamous ‘Black Diaries’ in which he reputedly detailed his homosexual relationships, and which were published in the British press at the time of his imprisonment in Pentonville Prison in 1916. Some will also know that he was stripped of his Knighthood and hanged as a traitor for collaborating with the Germans against England during the First World War.

Some will know of him from William Butler Yeats’s poem, which begins: “I say that Roger Casement/ Did what he had to do/ He died upon the gallows,/ But that is nothing new”. Yeats saw him as an Irish patriot but that view was controversial, even in Ireland, and only recently has he been widely recognized as a hero of the Irish struggle for independence.

Few will know of his work in the Congo and in Amazonia, where he documented the atrocities perpetrated on the native population by colonizing powers for the sake of those valuable commodities – rubber and ivory. In both places, the reports he wrote for the British Foreign Office were instrumental in bringing about changes, and in 1911 King George V knighted him for exemplary service to the United Kingdom.

Few men rise so high: and few sink so low as to be tried for treason and end their lives on the gallows.

Mario Vargas Llosa begins his novel in Casement’s cell in Pentonville Prison, where he awaits news of his appeal against the death sentence. But the bulk of the novel is made up of his memories. First of his years in Africa, then in Brazil and Peru, and finally in Ireland.

Casement was born in Kingstown, Co. Dublin, and grew up in an Anglican family, although his mother, who died when he was nine, had been a Catholic and had secretly had him baptized as a Catholic on a holiday trip to Wales. At the age of fifteen, he joined the Elder Dempster shipping line in Liverpool as an apprentice and, in the four years that he worked for them, he made three trips to West Africa and liked it so much that he gave up his job and moved there. In 1884, he joined an expedition into the Congo led by the famous Welsh explorer, Henry Morton Stanley. This was his first experience of the mixed intentions of Europeans in the Congo: “on one hand sowing desolation and death…and on the other opening routes to commerce and evangelization”, but for the next two years he travelled extensively as an agent for the Sanford Exploring Expedition, which was developing trade throughout the Upper Congo for King Leopold II of Belgium.

During these years, Casement became increasingly disillusioned with the idealistic vision of being able “to emancipate backward and ignorant people through Christianity and Western enlightenment”. By the time he met Konrad Korzeniowski, who was newly arrived in the Congo, he was able to share with him the horrors he had seen perpetrated by Belgian government agents and by the military Force Publique employed by them to enforce order. He prepared him for the terrible experiences which Conrad would eventually write into his novel, Heart of Darkness.

In 1888, Casement resigned from his job in disgust and went to work at a Baptist Mission as a book-keeper for three months before returning to England. Already, he was arguing vehemently against the exploitation, violence and moral corruption he had seen perpetrated in the Belgian Congo Free State in the name of commerce.

In Britain, reports of atrocities in the Belgian Congo were causing public outrage. Casement had a great deal of experience in Africa and a facility for languages which allowed him to talk with some of the native peoples in the Congo. His views about the situation there were also becoming more widely known. So, in 1892, he was appointed by the British Foreign Office as Travelling Commissioner to the Niger Court Protectorate and, shortly after that, as British Consul in the Congo port town of Boma. His express task was to investigate and report on human rights abuse in the Congo Free State. He undertook this task with “apostolic zeal” and presented his report in 1904. Pressure was brought to bear on the Belgians by the British government and changes were made. Casement became an important public figure in the cause against corruption and he was made ‘Companion of St Michael and St. George’ for his services in the Congo.

Through his African experiences, however, Casement had “discovered the great lie of colonialism” and had begun to think about his own country – Ireland. He became an Irish patriot and leaned all he could about Ireland’s history, culture, mythology and language. And in 1905, he began to collaborate with the newly formed Sinn Fein. Later, after his Amazonian experiences, he return to live in Ireland and made a visit to the United States to meet John Devoy, the leader of the powerful nationalist Clan na Gael, and find support for his own Irish Volunteers.

Casement’s experiences in the Congo were repeated when he was appointed Consul General at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and began to document the conditions of labourers working on the remote Putumayo rubber plantations for the Peruvian Amazon Company. His report on these was published in Britain and was instrumental in bringing about the downfall of the PAC. And in 1911, he was awarded a Knighthood which, despite his Irish patriotism, he accepted.

Ill health, and a desire to return to Ireland made Casement resign from the British Foreign Office in 1913. From then on, he became increasingly involved in the Irish Republican movement, bringing his fanaticism for justice to the cause. At the outbreak of World War I he was convinced that a rising timed to coincide with a German attack on England was the best way for the Republicans to succeed. His negotiations in Germany, his return from there to Ireland in a German submarine to supervise the distribution of arms supplied by the Germans, his subsequent betrayal by a British spy, and his capture and imprisonment, bring Llosa’s story full circle.

Roger Casement was undoubtedly a man governed by his principles to the extent that even close British friends ultimately broke off contact with him, and many Irish friends believed he had gone too far in liaising with the Germans. The ‘Black Diaries’, purportedly written by him during his years in Africa and Amazonia, and suggesting that he had indulged in sexual perversion, paedophilia and sexual exploitation, aroused disgust in many who would have supported a petition for clemency. These diaries, and his undoubted support for the Germans and theirs for him, led to him being stripped of his Knighthood and, ultimately, being hanged as a traitor.

Mario Vargas Llosa indicates Casement’s homosexuality and love of photographing beautiful young boys, but he goes into little detail and suggests that much of  the content of the diaries was the indulgence of fantasies by a lonely man. Llosa’s graphic accounts of the atrocities in the Congo and Amazonia are hard to read; and the extremism and fanaticism of Casement himself make him a difficult man to like. However, Llosa creates a convincing picture of Casement as a man of many parts – good and bad – and he brings back into focus the many important changes that Casement’s work did achieve. Llosa rounds off his novel with a summary of Casement’s gradual acceptance in Ireland as “one of the great anti-colonial fighters and defenders of human rights and indigenous cultures of his time and a sacrificial combatant for the emancipation of Ireland”. Something about which W.B.Yeats had no doubts when he wrote his poem.

Buy The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

 

REVIEW: Skios by Michael Frayne

“Now he was Dr Norman Wilfred, Oliver had discovered, once the security guard had unlocked his room and broken the padlock off his suitcase for him, he had an unexpected taste for pure silk underpants and pure silk pyjamas”

But Oliver was not Dr Norman Wilfred, however much he had convinced himself and guests at the Fred Toppler Foundation House Party that he was. He was Oliver Fox, charming sociopath, master of deception, lies and seduction. And he was in the middle of the most unexpected, entertaining and complicated scam he had ever undertaken.

Michael Frayne, whose Noises Off is a theatrical masterpiece of farce, is an expert at weaving bizarre, intricate and unbelievable elements into a story in such a way that you can’t predict what will happen or how the ensuing muddle can ever be sorted out. No-one expects farce to be totally believable but it has to draw you into the chaotic world of the characters and it has to be funny. Skios succeeds on both counts and it does so delightfully. Plots may be predictable – muddled suitcases, muddled love-lives, muddled identities. Characters may be caricatures – Greek taxi-drivers, Russian oligarchs, rich Americans and middle-aged professors who are expert in obscure disciplines like ‘Scientometrics’. The situations may be unrealistic, too. But Michael Frayne handles it all so well that you suspend disbelief and get carried along by the sheer momentum, fun and mayhem which ensue.

It all starts simply enough. Dazzled by a smile, Nikki, discreet, nice, competent, efficient Nikki, PA to Mrs Fred Toppler and organizer of Foundation’s annual Great European House Party on the Greek Island of Skios, mistakenly collects the wrong man from the airport. The wrong man but the right suitcase.

Meanwhile, the right man, complete with his much travelled keynote lecture notes and the wrong suitcase, ends up at a rented villa with a strange, highly disturbed woman. The woman is Oliver’s latest amorous conquest, Georgie, who, arriving after Dr Wilfred at the villa Oliver has been lent,  unsuspectingly climbs into the mosquito-netted bed in which the professor is sleeping.

Georgie locks herself in the bathroom convinced that she is being attacked by a rapist. Dr Wilfred, unable to calm the woman and believing he is where the Toppler Foundation intended him to be, sets off to find breakfast. He gets horribly lost and as messages, mobile phones, women (a second paramour of Oliver’s turns up at the villa), taxi-drivers, suitcases and identities are lost, found, misinterpreted and misunderstood, he gets progressively more confused, bedraggled and befuddled.

Oliver, in his new identity as Dr Wilfred, and paper-clipped into his new, rather large, silk underpants, meets and totally charms the Toppler house guests, and in the course of the day is offered various patronships, partnerships, presidencies and jobs worth many million dollars a year. He is in his element. This is the life he always knew he deserved. He works his magic on Mrs.Toppler and Nikki and, reveling in the challenge, is preparing to make up his after-dinner keynote lecture as he goes along.

Frayne, whilst mixing this potent brew of mayhem, pokes fun at  human nature, at our gullibility, and at the delusions and self-dramatization in which most of us occasionally indulge.

The Fred Toppler Foundation exists to promote “civilized values” and to be “a centre of wisdom and civilization”, which, as the widowed and wealthy Mrs. Toppler sadly notes, is a passion mostly shared by people who are past retiring age. The guests, as Nikki tells Oliver, are mostly from the States. “All horribly rich, of course, or they wouldn’t be here. But awfully nice people”, and they have been coming to Skios every year since the House Party started. They spend their time in seminars “studying Minoan cooking and Early Christian meditation techniques”, and in classes on exotic subjects like “Late Mediaeval flower-arrangement”. All this is interspersed with swims, siestas and “civilized conversation, over breakfast and mid-morning coffee, over pre-lunch drinks, lunch, post-lunch coffee, over afternoon tea and snacks”, dinner and post-dinner drinks.

So anxious are these guests to accept and approve of Oliver in his role as a distinguished professor of an esoteric subject about which most of them know nothing, that when Oliver tells them the truth about his deception they take is as a philosophical discussion about identity and trust:

“Someone has only got the say, “Hey guys, I’m an expert”‘, said Mr.Chuck Friendly, “and next thing he’s operating on the President’s brain, he’s running the space programme.”

“How do you know I’m Harold Fossetts?”, said Harold Fossetts.
“How do you know you’re Harold Fossetts?”, said Morton Rinkleman.
“Hey, how do I know I’m Harold Fossetts?”, said Harold Fossetts.

Of course, all the muddles have to be resolved in the end but Michael Frayne does not do this in the usual way. First, he offers a quick summary of how this might be done. “A showdown. The grand denouement”. The whole thing is part of a great causal chain where each cause “trails an effect at its heels like an obedient dog”, and “the whole sequence of events could have been predicted in time to be included in Newton’s Principia or the Book of Revelation”. But instead of this, he resolves the situation in a quite different way.

We might prefer the causal-chain ending to Frayne’s chosen one but, in the end, his ending is just another unexpected twist in a tale where unexpected events are at the heart of the fun.

Skios, could be the idea book to take with you as holiday reading on a Greek island.

Buy Skios by Michael Frayne here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

REVIEW: Second Chances by Charity Norman

“Finn fell.
I don’t  think, if I used a million words, I could call up the horror. It isn’t a matter of words.”

Finn is Martha’s five-year-old son and she sees him fall from the balcony of their home. But there is more to this terrible event than Martha is willing to tell us or anyone else when she begins her story.

Martha and her husband Kit have emigrated from England to New Zealand and have settled into their new home in what seems to be an idyllic, rural part of Hawkes Bay. Back in England, Kit’s advertising agency had foundered because of the economic downturn, and he had become depressed and increasingly reliant on alcohol. Martha’s salary as an Occupational Therapist was not enough to cover the family’s expenses, and the marriage was suffering under all the strain. Change was inevitable. Trawling the Internet one day, Martha discovered that she could easily find work in New Zealand in an area where the family could have a dream house, mortgage free and in their price range. So, Martha accepts a job and Kit agrees to shun alcohol and concentrate on painting, a passion and a talent  which he has never had time to develop. It all seems like the perfect way to start again.

Charity Norman knows from her own experience the emotional turmoil of migration. She writes movingly of the excitement and of the sadness of uprooting yourself from home, family, friends, work, and all that is familiar, to move to a new country at the other end of the world.  And she describes Martha’s feelings well, as the family begin to explore their new country and learn its ways. She writes bautifully, too, of the New Zealand countryside and its unique culture.

For a time everything seems to go exceptionally well. Finn and his twin brother, Charlie, who are delightful characters, take to New Zealand life immediately. Kit does, too, and he begins to have some success as an artist. Martha settles into her new job and learns how to deal with her new colleagues. Only teenage Sacha, who didn’t want to move in the first place, has difficulty adapting to her new life, new school and new friends. Sacha is not Kit’s daughter and Martha has always claimed that after a one-night-stand her real father disappeared and was never heard of again. Kit and Sacha are good friends but Sacha was just beginning to want to find out more about her birth father when they left England. Eventually, however, Sacha seems to settle in and begin to enjoy New Zealand life.

Finn’s fall from the balcony, however, throws Martha into crisis. She has secrets, more than one, which could destroy her family and, as she sits by Finn’s bed in intensive care, not knowing if he will survive or, if he does, how damaged he might be, she slowly reveals events of past and present.

This is a compelling book and Charity Norman creates some very real characters and draws you into their lives so that you become emotionally involved with them. The plight of Finn is a thread which runs through Martha’s story and her memories of earlier events and creates constant tension. But there are other, equally serious, issues which threaten the family and which must be resolved. All this is balanced by the strong loving bonds which hold this family together, the beauty and freedom of the environment, and the support of neighbours and sense of community which ultimately convince Martha that this is where they belong.

Norman handles the suspense, the anxieties and the joys fluently and, whilst keeping you absorbed by the family, she deals intelligently with serious social and family issues. Not least, she explores the power of dreams to entice, delight, confuse and disappoint but, ultimately, to have the power to change the lives of those who are brave enough and resilient enough to follow them.

Buy the book Second Chances by Charity Norman here…

Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: Nest: The Art of Birds by Janine Burke

TITLE: Nest: The Art of Birds
AUTHOR: Janine Burke
PUBLISHER: Allen & Unwin (81 Alexander St. Crows Nest, NSW 2065, Australia) (March 2012)
ISBN: 978 1 74237 829 9      182 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com)

There are many good things about this book. Its central theme, as the author tells us, is that birds’ nests are artistic creations: their construction and design consciously intended to be attractive not just as a safe and desirable place for the female to raise her brood, but also, like the bower-bird’s bower which is decorated with carefully chosen flowers, leaves, and found objects, pleasing in a wholly non-utilitarian, ‘artistic’ way. We humans are not, she suggests, the only animals to be artists.

This is a difficult argument to maintain, since the purpose of the embellishments added to bowers and nests is still to attract a mate. However, many of the nests which Janine Burke describes are, indeed, superbly and skillfully crafted and are also beautiful objects for us to see and touch. Our definition of art, too, has changed radically in recent times. So, Burke bolsters her argument by comparing the creation of these nests to the creations of a number of different human artists in a number of different media. Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’, an environmental sculpture made of rock in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, is one example she offers. Others, are the nest photography of Sharon Beals and the wild-life  photography of Andy Rouse.

The problem, for me, is that this book is a rag-bag of information – or, maybe I should say a magpie collection of facts – related, often very remotely and sometimes not at all, to her argument. For example, after a perfectly legitimate description of the nesting skills of storks, we get a long passage about Karen Blixen’s life and love, her home in Africa which is now a museum, and her affliction with syphilis, all because, it seems, the stork was her totem bird.

Burke wrote at length about Blixen and other artists in her recent book Visions. In Nest, she reprises a great deal of this, drawing on what she has already written about, for example, Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf and the Australian Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye. She also trawls the poetry collections for bird poems, coming up with work by Keats, Shelley, Hughes and Emily Dickinson. None of this, however, is really of help in proving that birds are conscious artists.

Burke’s descriptions of her own observations of nesting birds are interesting and sometimes – as with her experiences with her noisy neighbours, the Indian Miner birds – quite funny. But do we really need to know how insecure she felt about writing this book, or how she overcame her early hero-worship of an influential art critic to arrive at her own opinions about art?

This book is beautifully presented, a pleasure to look at and hold; and Burke, who is an art historian, writes fluently and well when she describes art. She could have made much more of the nests themselves, their creation, their individuality, their diversity and their beauty, but, to my mind, she got sidetracked too often to make this a satisfying book.

Review: Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd

TITLE: Waiting for Sunrise
AUTHOR: William Boyd
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury (March 2012)
ISBN: 9781408818589   353 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com)

The Year is 1913, the setting Vienna. Lysander Ulrich Rief is a 28 year-old English actor. He is “a young, almost handsome man” and “almost a dandy” and he writes poetry. His surname, he says, is Old English for ‘thorough’ , and in Anglo Saxon it means’wolf’. But he is hardly a thorough wolf, maybe because he has a distressing problem for which a friend has advised him to seek psychiatric help in Vienna where, under the influence of Freud, psychoanalysis has become popular.

Dr Bensimon, is an English psychologist and a follower of Freud. He diagnoses Lysander’s problem as anorgasmia and, naturally, a psychological trauma in Lysander’s childhood is duly uncovered.

Meanwhile, Lysander has met Hettie Bull, a sexually predatory, Coca addicted, English sculptor who is living in Vienna with her common law husband, artist Udo Hoff. Hettie, in the time-honoured way, cures Lysander of his problem; but later, when she discovers that she is pregnant, she accuses him of rape and he is arrested.

So the scene is set for Alwyn Munro and Jack Fyfe-Miller, attachés at the British Embassy, to intervene and, subsequently, to facilitate Lysander’s daring escape over the Austro-Hungarian border and back to London.

Part two of the book is set in London in 1914. We meet Lysander’s glamorous Austrian mother; his elderly and frail step-father, Lord Crickmay Faulkner; his step-brother, Harley Street dentist, the Hon. Hugo Faulkner; and his uncle, Major Hamo Rief V.C., who makes exploratory expeditions to Africa and who has brought back with him the “very sweet boy” who had been his African guide. Each of these characters play a role in Lysander’s eventual career as a British spy after he is recruited by Munro and Fyfe-Miller in lieu of payment for the legal fees and accommodation incurred in their rescue of him from Vienna.

But I jump ahead. First, war is declared between England and Germany and Lysander decides to “do his bit” for England and enlists in the army. Then Munro and Fyfe-Miller turn up again and the skullduggery begins. Lysander is sent to the front line with a couple of grenades in his pack. He must make an excursion into no man’s land, toss the grenades and go ‘missing-in-action’ . He must crawl through a pre-arranged gap in the French defences and join the French army and, there, Fyfe-Miller will meet him and organize his transformation in to Abelard Schwimmer, a German-speaking Swiss railway engineer who has been in a sanatorium in Belgium and is now on his way home to Switzerland. Once in Geneva, Lysander/Abelard must meet the British agent, code-named ‘Bonfire’, who will lead him to a German Consular official who has been receiving coded messages from a British mole. He must then, using his “ingenuity” or a bribe, obtain the password which will allow the British to decrypt the messages and catch the mole.

In the last part of the book the action becomes faster and the plot more involved. Discovering the identity of the mole becomes the main theme, no-one can be trusted, and the story ends with an unexpected twist.

It is all quite entertaining, but I had a number of problems with this book. Perhaps most importantly, I did not warm to Lysander, who seemed to me to be a bit of a prat. I also found it hard to believe that the fledgling British intelligence service was quite as amateur in 1914 as this book suggests. And there were elements of the plot which I found completely unbelievable. At one point, for example, Lysander is shot three times at point-blank range, in a confined space, and he survives. Many of the characters, too, are little more than caricatures.

Reviewers in the British media have been enthusiastic about this book. Le Carré’s name is mentioned on an advertising flyer, but it is nothing like a Le Carré book. James Bond in 1914? Perhaps. The basis of a  forthcoming popular film? Very likely: It has all the necessary ingredients – Lords and Ladies, an Elizabethan Manor House, exotic settings, arty types, drugs, hot sex, hints of homosexuality and perversion, trench warfare, espionage, goodies and baddies – How could it possibly fail?

Review – GRANTA 118: Exit Strategies by John Freeman

TITLE:  GRANTA 118: Exit Strategies
EDITOR: John Freeman
PUBLISHER: Granta (12 Addison Ave.London, W11 4QR, U.K.) (30 January 2012)
ISBN: 9781905881550        256pages

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.comhttp://ann.skea.com/).

I always thought that Douglas Adams’s dolphins had the perfect exit line: ” So long, and thanks for all the fish” . But was that part of an exit strategy? My dictionary defines ‘strategy’ in terms of the art of war, planning, and self-protection, but Granta‘s interpretation of it is much broader. It covers, as the advertising blub tells us, “how we get ourselves out and the repercussions that follow”, which includes war but also the contemplation and remembering of many different sorts of endings, such as the end of a writing career, of a love affair, dying, memory loss, extradition and environmental disaster.

As always, the pieces chosen for this issue are unconventional, entertaining, thought-provoking and well-written. The writers, photographer and poets come from many different backgrounds, cultures and countries. Some are well known, like John Barth, who wonders whether a recent hiatus in his writing after fifty-three years of being published is ‘The End?’. Clearly not! Others are newer voices, like Jacob Newberry, whose ‘Summer’ explores the uncertainties of gay friendship.

Some pieces are factual or based on fact. Susan Minot’s,’Thirty Girls’, tells the story of Sister Giulia, a Catholic nun caught up in the kidnapping of her schoolgirl charges by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. Other pieces are pure fiction. David Long’s, ‘Bonfire’, reads like a young man’s erotic fantasy remembered years later when the domesticity of marriage and children dominate his life. Claire Messud deals with her own feelings when a writing commission takes her away from her dying father to Beirut, where, with only a sketch-map hastily drawn by him from memory, she tries to find the places where he spent his happy childhood. And Vanessa Manko imagines an interview and the resulting deportation from the U.S.A of a Russian man during the roundups of supposed communists and anarchists in the early 1920s.

Stacy Kranitz’s poignant photographs of a family living on the disappearing Isle de Jean Charles in the Gulf of Mexico, show the effects of the world’s rapidly rising sea-levels. And four very different poems explore endings, searches, losses and the puzzle of life. The poetry is not easy, but like all good poetry it condenses powerful emotions and thoughts into brief, vivid experiences for the reader.

And there is much more. The complete list of contents can be seen on the Granta website at www.granta.com/Archive/Exit-Strategies, where you will also find additional exit-strategies posted on the Granta blog and a range of sample pieces from the Granta archive.

REVIEW: GRANTA 117: Horror by John Freeman

TITLE:  GRANTA 117: Horror
EDITOR: John Freeman
PUBLISHER:  Granta (12 Addison Ave.London, W11 4QR, U.K.) (21 November 2011)
ISBN: 9781905881369         256pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

This is no collection of ghosts, ghouls and gruesome fantasies. Indeed, there is enough real horror in the world for imagination to be unnecessary. So, Granta’s ‘Horror’ covers Will Self’s thoughts on his own rare blood disease; Tom Bamforth’s field notes from a humanitarian mission in a lawless area of Sudan; Paul Auster’s reactions to the death of his mother; and Santiago Roncagliolo’s memories of returning to Peru as a worker for the Public Defenders Department and working with the Belgian human rights activist, Father Hubert Lanssiers, interviewing convicted, potentially violent, terrorists in an overcrowded, high-security prison. Mark Doty writes about eroticism, desire, insatiability, addiction and Bram Stoker and Walt Whitman; and Julia Otsuka examines the strange world of memory loss.

Fiction is not completely absent from this collection. Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Colonel’s Son’ (translated from the Spanish) traps you in the fertile mind of a man obsessed by a film story; Rajesh Parameswaran shape-shifts into a man-eating tiger; Dan DeLillo follows in the steps of a film-obsessed stalker; Sarah Hall creates a weird and frightening dog story; and Stephen King tells a ghost story with a sting in its tail.

Sometimes, however, fact is weirder than fiction, like the crypto-gothic fight club in Los Angles which is visited by Daniel Alarc Cave Woman fights The Hammer, Arctic fights The Mad Monk, and rivers of fake blood flow across the floor so that your shoes stick to it.

Poetry and art, too, explore death and disease. D.A.Powell’s poem ‘Quarantine’ suggests a black future in which the world becomes “one great gall'” and Kanitta Meechubot gathers life, love and death into her unusual images of ‘The Garden of Illuminated Existence’.

There are nightmares and terrors enough, here, to haunt the imagination and keep you awake at night. And, as usual, Granta has chosen the best people to tell you about them.

REVIEW: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

TITLE:  The Sense of an Ending
AUTHOR: Julian Barnes
PUBLISHER: Random House (1 August 2011)
ISBN: 9780224094153    150 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

“some approximate memories, which time has deformed into certainties”, that’s how Barnes’s narrator, Tony Webster, describes this exploration of his past. He begins with schooldays, because, “that’s where it all began”. And in his memory he re-creates the friendships, the teenage ambitions and uncertainties, a youthful love affair, a marriage and an amicable divorce, all culminating in a comfortable, reasonably active retirement. It is an ordinary story of an ordinary man, until a lawyer’s letter arrives to disturb his complacency.

Barnes is very good at capturing what it is like to be a bright boy at school testing a growing awareness of the world in interactions with friends and school masters. Tony and his good friends, Colin and Alex, share this experience. The inclusion of Adrian, clever and more serious, in their group changes the dynamics subtly but the friendships last until university, careers and marriages draw them apart. It is Adrian, however, who marries Tony’s first serious girl-friend; and it is Adrian who commits suicide at the age of twenty-two, and who, years later, precipitates Tony’s self-examination.

For some reason, Barnes divides this book into two. The first part, which is lively and youthful, ends with Tony in retirement looking back on the memories of a survivor. For a paragraph or two in the second part, I expected a different narrator with a different perspective on the past. But, no, it is still Tony, although he sounds more subdued, older and more orientated to the present. In part two he is less sure of himself, reliant on the views and advice of his former wife, and more self-deceiving. He is still relying on memory to recount events but it is much more recent memory, disturbed by his obsession with obtaining Adrian’s diary, which has unexpectedly and bizarrely been left to him by Adrian’s mother-in-law. It is easy to lose patience with Tony in this second half, and the delaying tactics of the author are more obvious as we are led towards a revelation which will make us, the readers, re-assess our understanding of Tony’s story; just as it made him re-assess his memory of his own past.

“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”, Tony says at the start of this book. But can you be blamed for a chain of events which began with something you did witness – something you did and then forgot about?

“Towards the end of your life”, says Tony, “You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?”. It is an interesting question but one which few of us have to face in quite the way Tony did.

REVIEW: Private Journal of a Passage to Australia by James Bell

TITLE:  Private Journal of A Voyage to Australia
AUTHOR: James Bell. (Introduction and Epilogue by Anthony Laube).
PUBLISHER: Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 978 1 74237 795 7         202 pages.

Buy it here…

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

In 1838, when 21-year-old James Bell set sail from England on the long voyage to Australia, he began to keep a journal. Somehow, at some time in the 150 years since then, that journal made its way back to England where it was found on a stall in a London street market, auctioned by Bonhams for A$22,000 to the State Library of South Australia, and returned to Adelaide. James Bell would have been amazed to know that what began for him as the fulfillment of a promise to a friend would end up being published, especially since he had stated plainly that “it must never be read by a third party”.

Tantalizing as that prohibition is, young James was a pious and rather Puritanical young man and there is nothing scandalous about his writing or his behaviour. Unfortunately, he could not say the same for his fellow passengers. “I am sure”, he writes, “no person of any principles of virtue could call himself quite comfortable while his eyes and ears were annoyed every day by people who have long since rendered themselves insensible to the admonitions of conscience, or…are gratifying their depraved senses by revelling in the ignominy of Vice”.  Even as his journey is nearing its end, he is still worrying that “as water wears away the flinty rock” so contact with these people would gradually undermine his own “principles of virtue”.

So, James goes into little detail about the vice he sees. Instead, he assiduously charts the ship’s progress (or, more often, lack of progress) from day to day, recording the weather, the discomfort, the homesickness, boredom and quarrels, a birth and a death, the brief spells ashore, and the captain’s incompetence. And his was not an uneventful voyage, especially as just a third of the way through it the crew mutinied and the passengers were obliged to take over the sailing and security of the ship until they arrived in “Rio Janeira”.

James was an interested observer in Rio, where he was “much struck” by the appearance of slaves and much bitten by mosquitoes; and in the early South African settlement of Algoa Bay, where he describes the few houses, the settlers (only 2,500 of them), and the native people. But he was not a born storyteller. His journal is sparse and factual and dotted with quotations from his favourite poems. Yet it does convey what it was like to be confined for months on a small ship with limited supplies, and in the company of strangers. His ‘home’ was a two metre square, ‘Intermediate’ class cabin below deck; the ship was becalmed, lost masts and sails in terrifying storms, and several times came close to disaster; and it was an era in which navigation and charts were unreliable and landfall uncertain. The good ship Planter was constantly and frustratingly overtaken by other ships, including one of the new iron steam ships which filled James with delight and envy at her speed. A day when he could write “we make 4 to 5 miles an hour” was a good day. It took 9 days of waiting for favourable weather before the ship could leave the Thames estuary behind at the start of this voyage and it was a seemingly interminable 169 days before James finally set foot in Adelaide on the South Australian coast.

Anthony Laub, an historian and a librarian at the State Library of South Australia, deciphered and transcribed James’s journal and has provided footnotes and an interesting introduction which describes the convict-free, land-development scheme which attracted migrants such as James to South Australia. He also provides an epilogue telling us briefly what became of James and some of his fellow passengers after they arrived in Adelaide. In spite of all that James observed of them, many seem to have become good and respected citizens.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

TITLE: The Cat’s Table
AUTHOR:  Michael Ondaatje
PUBLISHER: Random House  (2 August 2011)

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

Buy The Cat’s Table here…

I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk, in this green grasshopper or little cricket, as if he has been smuggled away accidentally, into the future“(p.4-5).

This boy, whose name is Michael, like Ondaatje’s, shares some of his creator’s history. But how much of his story is invented and how much of this novel is autobiographical is impossible to tell, partly because Ondaatje has created such a believable story-teller. In spite of the fact that Ondaatje says clearly in an Author’s Note that his novel merely uses the “colouring and locations of memoir and autobiography” and is definitely fiction, its brief chapters have the feel of memory and it is a teasing fiction.

Michael, as an eleven-year-old boy, is put aboard the Ocean Liner Oronsay by relatives. He has with him only a small suitcase, and he is to travel from Sri Lanka (Ceylon, as it was then) to England to join his mother, just as Ondaatje once did. The only people he knows on board this ship are Mrs Flavia Prins, to whom he is introduced shortly before he leaves Sri Lanka and who, unlike him, is travelling First Class; and a distant cousin, Emily, a seventeen-year-old who is also travelling alone but who has “her own plans for the voyage”.

Michael and two other boys of similar age are seated for meals at ‘The Cat’s Table’, so-called by Miss Lasqueti because it is “the least privileged place”, as far from the Captain’s Table as possible. Miss Lasqueti and five other adults share the table with the boys and gradually, through Michael’s eyes, we come to know more about all of them. Years later, looking back at his younger self, Michael sees a child who is “as green as he could be about the world”, but Michael has a child’s curiosity about everything and a young boy’s boundless energy. This voyage is to be an education for him in many ways, but Ondaatje’s book is not just a rite-of-passage story, it is a wonderful recreation of a boy’s perceptions and of what it is like to be an eleven-year-old with almost unlimited freedom from normal adult supervision.

Young Michael and his friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, organize their time so that they have free run of the ship in the very early morning and late at night. They swim in the First Class swimming pool, slide on the still-wet, freshly-scrubbed decks, spy on people from their secret lair in one of the suspended lifeboats, steal sandwiches when no-one is around, and get up to the usual sorts of mischief which eleven-year-olds are capable of getting up to. But they are also inquisitive and observant, and over the course of the voyage they learn a great deal from and about their fellow passengers.

Miss Lasqueti, it turns out, is not the staid spinster they first thought her to be. Intriguingly, she keeps a cage of pigeons and she wears a special vest with pockets in it for carrying the birds around. She also has “something to do with Whitehall”; and Michael is sure, on one occasion, that he sees her use a gun. Mr Davies, another Cat’s Table diner, takes the boys to see his medicinal garden deep in the bowels of the ship. And Mr Nevil, a retired ship dismantler,  introduces the boys to his friends in the engine and furnace rooms. There is also the well-travelled, failed pianist, Max Mazappa, who takes the boys under his wing, regales them with “confusing and often obscene lyrics” and tries to instill in Michael a love of jazz. The fifth adult we meet only towards the end of the book

Other passengers have more exotic stories. Baron C, briefly trains Michael to act as his accomplice in petty theft. Mr Fonseka, whose nostalgic hemp-rope burning lures Michael to his cabin by its familiar smell, is a reclusive English teacher, travelling, like Michael, to a new and unknown life in England. And Sir Hector de Silva, a wealthy entrepreneur and philanthropist, is bound for Harley Street as a last resort after being bitten by a rabid dog. As I write this, I remember more and more characters, each of whom Ondaatje makes memorable with Dickensian skill. Our narrator, Michael, has a story-teller’s ability to bring them to life and a self-confessed ability “like any experienced dog” to read the gestures of those around him and to “see the power in relationships drift back and forth”, even if he does not fully understand what is happening.

There is adventure when Michael and Cassius are willingly tied to the open deck by Ramadhin during a tremendous storm. There is a mystery surrounding a chained prisoner who is seen by the boys when he is brought on deck by his guards for exercise during the night. There is intrigue, too, in the friendship of cousin Emily with the deaf girl Asuntha, and with Sunil, The Hyderabad Mind, who is a member of the Jalanka Entertainment Troup which performs for the passengers.

Dramatic things happen. There is sadness and doubt. And there is a poignant account of Michael’s meeting with his mother when he eventually disembarks in England. He is full of uncertainty, not even sure he will recognize his mother after their long separation. For her, too, as Michael reflects years later, “it must have been a hopeful or terrible moment, full of possibilities”

It is hard to tell whether it is the fictional Michael or Ondaatje himself who “once told someone” that “this journey was to be an innocent story within the small parameters of my youth”. Perhaps it was both. The Cat’s Table is, in any case, a beautifully told, humorous and adventurous exploration of the mysterious way in which people, events and memory can shape our lives and our own stories.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review: Dante in Love by A.N. Wilson

TITLE:  Dante in Love
AUTHOR: A.N.Wilson
PUBLISHER:      Atlantic Books (Ormond House, 26-27 Boswell St. London, WC1N 3JZ)  (9 June 2011)
ISBN: 978 1 84887 948 5        386 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

Buy Dante in Love here…

A.N.Wilson’s stated aim in Dante in Love is to act as a travel-guide in the unfamiliar terrain of Dante’s poetry. He tells us that after much research he is “still looking for a book which is a life of Dante set against the background of his times” and which acts as an introduction to Dante’s Divine Comedy (the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso). Unsurprisingly, since he also wants the book to inspire in him “a sense that there is a connection between fancying women, wanting to understand poetry and answering the deepest questions about life and the deepest needs of the human heart”, he has never found such a book. So, in Dante in Love, he aims to supply that book himself. Sadly, for me, he does not succeed..

Dante in Love is handsomely presented and beautifully illustrated, but I finished reading it almost as confused about Dante’s world and about the often obscure references in his poetry as I ever was. Partly, this is because Dante lived in very confusing times. Mostly, I think, it is because A.N. Wilson (who describes himself as “no Dante scholar”) has tried to pack too much into this book. He also jumps around in time and strives to make his book relevant to a modern reader, so I was often lost in a long modern digression when I needed to be in 13th century Italy.

Wilson begins in Rome in Easter 1300, the time Dante chose as the setting for his Comedy. Purgatory had just been invented (defined in 1274 by the Council of Lyons), so, too, it seems had buttons in Germany, spinning wheels in France and windmills in England. Quite what these last three inventions had to do with Dante’s Comedy is a puzzle, although other things that Wilson mentions, such as the growth of mercantile trade, the creation of Banks and the minting of Florins in Florence, where Dante grew up, were understandably important to the views on usury and power which are expressed in the Comedy.

From 14th century Rome, we move to present-day Florence which, as Wilson tells us, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. At the time of Dante’s birth in the 13th century, however, Florence had none of the features which are now so well-known. Instead, like Rome, it was “infested with towers built by rival gangs”. Iceland, Wilson tells us irrelevantly, was like this, too. He then takes us back to the eleven-hundreds, when “Mafia-style thuggery” was rampant in Florence between the supporters of the French backed Pope – the Guelphs – and the Ghibellines, who supported the Holy Roman Emperor, the German-born head of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. And finally we learn that this was still the same when Dante was born in 1265, and Dante’s family were Guelphs. But the Guelphs themselves were divided between those who supported the powerful merchant, Corso Donati (the ‘Blacks’) and those who favoured the banker Vieri de Cerchi (the ‘Whites’).

To complicate matters further, the other great power in Italy was the Church, and Popes supported by, and supporting, different factions changed frequently. There were fifteen Popes during Dante’s lifetime (1265-1321) and, confusingly for readers, each changed his name on enthronement. The most important Pope in Dante’s life was Boniface VIII (Benedetto Caetani), whose influential rule lasted nine years, from 1294 to 1303. It was he who was responsible for Dante’s banishment from Florence in 1301 after Dante, who by then was politically active and well-respected in Florence, failed to support the Pope’s plans. The Pope wanted Dante out of Florence whilst he negotiated with the French and Dante, in Wilson’s words, was “stitched up”. Dante, in return, damned Pope Boniface VIII to the Hell of his Inferno and vilified him as one of the most greedy, licentious and brutal of men.

I read with interest of Dante’s political skills and ambitions, of his interest in philosophy and about some of his mentors and his closest friends. In particular, I enjoyed reading of his close friendship with Giotto. I don’t put much faith in Wilson’s suggestion that Giotto’s painted Hell in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua was a major influence on Dante’s poetic version of Hell in the Comedy, but it is interesting to compare the two.

So where is Love in all this? Wilson’s book, after all, is called Dante in Love and he did not intend it to be just a history or biography. Wilson’s approach to love in Dante’s life is not romantic but philosophical, although he allows for the physical expression of love in Dante’s life, too. He argues, and I think correctly, that the status of  Beatrice Portinari in Dante’s life and, especially, in his work, was that of a Platonic Idea. It was shaped by Dante’s exposure to French and Provencal poetry, the tradition of the troubadours and the dictates of Courtly Love. This was reinforced by Dante’s study of Platonism, by his immersion in Franciscan and Dominican philosophy, and, especially, by the influence of the mystics, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Bonaventure and the former troubadour and monk, St Bernard of Clairvaux.  Controversially, Wilson identifies the Donna Gentile, the woman of whom Dante wrote passionately in his Vita Nova, with Dante’s wife, Gemma. But she, too, became a Platonic Idea and Dante later identified her as ‘Philosophy’.

My guess is that Wilson’s book will infuriate Dante scholars and that it will do little to enlighten readers like me who think they should know Dante and his work better. I was dismayed and frustrated when Wilson, summing up an important argument, suddenly chose not to translate the final four lines of the Paradiso from Dante’s Italian on the basis the ‘everyone knows’ them. I for one do not. Perhaps Wikipedia will rescue me, as it did when Wilson’s book bogged me down in historical complexities or in long and irrelevant asides.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Review – Granta 115: The F Word by John Freeman

TITLE: GRANTA 115: The F Word
EDITOR: John Freeman
PUBLISHER: Granta (12 Addison Ave.London, W11 4QR, U.K.) (1 June 2011)
ISBN: 978 1 905881 34 5         272 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

Buy Granta 115: The F Word by John Freeman here…

GRANTA, if you have not met it before, is one of the very best literary magazines. It has no manifesto but it “believes in the power and urgency of the story both in fiction and non-fiction”. Since 1979, it has consistently published the best writing of new and established authors, and many who made their debut in Granta have gone on to become well-known. In recent years, photo-journalism and poetry have become a regular part of Granta’s offerings and it has begun to publish the work (in English) of writers from around the world. Frequently, too, it publishes large samples of work-in-progress which will shortly be published in full by major publishing houses.

I have been a reader of Granta for many years now and generally each issue has a theme. Selecting at random from earlier issues, I find ‘The Best Young Writers’, ‘Travel’, ‘History’, ‘The Best New Nature Writing’ and, from 1980, ‘The End of the English Novel’, which includes chapters from a new work by Salman Rushdie calledMidnight’s Children, and contributions from Angela Carter, Russell Hoban, Alan Sillitoe, and Emma Tennant, amongst others.

Granta 115, ‘The F Word’, with its theme of feminism is an issue to which I was not initially attracted but, as usual, the contents are surprising, entertaining and thought -provoking. What is new about Feminism? How radical do you have to be to be called a feminist? Aren’t all women feminists? Has feminism in earlier times changed anything in the world? All the usual questions are raised but in interesting and unusual ways.

There are the thoughts of a Japanese migrant woman adapting, with her children, to a new culture. There are the childhood perceptions of an African women in a male-dominated world. There is a man’s perspective (written by a woman); a poem about Ariadne, her god/lover and an empty tomb; a lesbian encounter; and the view of the ‘other woman’ in an adulterous relationship. Most vivid, terrible and extraordinary is the account of the experiences of a group of French women who, in 1942, were arrested on suspicion of having links with the French Resistance and who were held in  the Nazi death camp, Birkenau. Through mutual support, fifteen of the thirty-five women arrested survived.

Louise Erdrich explores enslavement. Laura Bell describes her feelings about willingly giving up her independence to be a so-called “kept woman”. Clarissa d’Arcimoles’ photo-essay recreates and compares childhood photographs with shots of the same family members fifteen years later. And to prove that things have changed for women in the world, A.S Byatt recalls being told by a male lawyer that “women can’t be ambassadors”  when, as a teenager, she expressed this ambition.

For a complete list of the contents of this and earlier issues you can go to the Granta Home page at www.granta.com/Magazine/. And there you can also sample some of the stories – be they fiction, non-fiction, essays, memoir, poetry or reportage.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Smut by Alan Bennett

TITLE: Smut
AUTHOR: Alan Bennett
PUBLISHER:      Faber  (30 May 2011)
ISBN: 978 1 84668 525 5         EBOOK ISBN: 978 1 84765 765 7          180 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

Buy Smut by Alan Bennett here…

I was bribed to write about this book. My review copy came with an extra package in which I found a paper bag emblazoned in large letters: ‘WARNING: contains Smut’, and in smaller letters “the wicked new book by Alan Bennett. Inside the paper bag was a lurid orange T-shirt with the command “Ask me about Smut” splashed across the front.

Alan Bennett is surely well-known enough not to need such gimmicky advertising. Who would wear this T-shirt? Young bookshop assistants perhaps? Literature festival devotees? Certainly not me.

And how much does such advertising add to the cost of the book?

More importantly, is the book worth it?

I like Alan Bennett’s writing. I like his humour and his generous appreciation of the foibles and quirks of human nature. I would have written a review without the ghastly T-shirt. But there is no doubt that sex sells and the cover blub of the book says plainly enough what the book is about. It contains, we are told, two “unseemly stories”, both of which “concern women in middle life. Mrs Donaldson, whom sex takes by surprise, and Mrs Forbes, who is not surprised at all”. And Yes, the book is what it says it is: “Naughty, honest and very funny”.

The large image of a keyhole on the book’s cover is appropriate, because ‘smut’ is what we primly label all those sexy things which go on behind closed doors. In this book, Bennett lets us look through the keyhole at a huge range of sexual antics, predilections, sexual fantasies and embarrassments. All of which happen to seemingly ordinary, upright (well, not always upright!), moral citizens. Whether readers find this prurient or not depends on their view of sex. Mostly, Bennett enjoys the contradictions between the way in which we humans present ourselves to the world and, often, to our partners, and the secret thrills, untapped desires and bizarre situations in which our sexual urges are likely (or unlikely) to embroil us.

Mrs Donaldson, after an exemplary moral life as wife and mother, finds unexpected rewards when her husband dies and she takes in a couple of impoverished students as lodgers. One of her lodgers is a medical student and, at her suggestion, Mrs Donaldson becomes a part-time demonstrator at the hospital, acting out medical conditions to test the diagnostic skills of a group of student doctors. This is just part of her adventure, but when the students fall behind with their rent the sexual revelations which follow are equally novel to her and unexpectedly stimulating and addictive.

Mrs Forbes’s husband is very much alive, but his secret homosexual predilections cause complications which she is well equipped to handle, having secrets (especially financial secrets) of her own. His troubling and troublesome liaisons are described in some detail, but so too, are her dissimulations as good, submissive, financially incompetent wife.

In the end, for both women, keeping up appearances becomes less important than the thrills of exploring their own secret selves.

Alan Bennett show us that so-called ‘smut’ is a fact of life. And that the thrill of discovering smutty secrets about others is a common human failing. Look through enough keyholes and you will no doubt discover this for yourselves. But maybe the advertisers should have added this to the T-shirt: “WARNING: you may never regard your ordinary seeming neighbours in the same way again”.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

 

Machiavelli’s Lawn by Mark Crick

TITLE: Machiavelli’s Lawn
AUTHOR: Mark Crick
PUBLISHER:  Granta  (1 April 2011)
ISBN: 978 1 84708 134 6       111 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

Buy Machiavelli’s Lawn by Mark Crick here…

I am not sure whether Mark Cricks’ skill is ventriloquism or parody. Whatever it is, this small book purports to be full of the voices of  “great writers”. Bertolt Brecht, Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Martin Amis and Machiavelli are just a few of the writers whose style Crick mimics in order to offer us expert gardening advice. It is an ingenious notion, but it relies on us having read enough of the work of these authors to recognize a few distinctive features of their style in Crick’s versions of their horticultural guidance.

The patronized “little squirrel” wife of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, for example, is re-cast as ‘Julia’ in Act 1 of a play called ‘Planting a Fruit Tree with Henrik Ibsen’. Julia, pretending to be a helpless wife, does all the work whilst her husband, Helder, looks on and criticizes from his bath chair. Secret passions and secret liaisons are hinted at. A boy and a gardener are glimpsed and the importance of “good root-stock” is emphasised. Underlying psychological games-playing pervades the scene and it ends with the threat of devastating revelations.

Machiavelli , who humbly introduces this book to “the magnificent reader”, tells us that it offers the learning, knowledge and worthiness of “great gardeners and plantsmen”.  He also instructs us, later, ‘On The Art of Mowing’. Gardens are, after all, akin to Principalities, about which he was an authority, and good governance of a lawn requires “rules and discipline”, a willingness to be severe, and the determination to “punish delinquent plants” which threaten the borders.

Alan Bennett, it seems is an expert on ‘Caring for Heather’. Heather is a performer of Scottish ancestry whose unexotic career and sturdy and reliable performance make her the star of civic presentations. She features in sea-side shows, fund-raising ventures and, latterly, as a star performer in the overheated communal lounge of a nursing home.

Other writers demonstrate surprising skills. Raymond Carver, it seems, knows all about ‘Planting a Hanging Basket’; and Pablo Neruda writes loving instruction on ‘How to Prune a Rose’.

If you are not familiar with the genuine writings of Crick’s gardening experts, the irony of the pieces will be somewhat lost on you. And if you are very familiar with a particular author’s genuine work you may find Crick’s parody amusing but limited.

My own familiarity with Sylvia Plath’s work, for example, made the maternal theme in Crick’s ‘Burying Bulbs in Autumn with Sylvia Plath’ seem quite appropriate, but his oblique use of her suicide in his final paragraphs I found un-necessary and distasteful.

Parody, as Nabokov once said, is a game. Crick’s mimicry and his versions of art works by “famous artists” are clever, inventive and good games-playing, but this is a light-weight book in every sense. It is amusing to dip into but quickly forgotten.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

Dr Ann Skea, Sydney, Australia.
[ann@skea.com]
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

 

REVIEW: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

TITLE:  Gillespie and I
AUTHOR: Jane Harris
PUBLISHER:  Faber  (June 2011)
ISBN: 9780571275168      504 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

It is April 1933. Harriet Baxter is eighty, unmarried, of independent means and consumed with the urge to write of the time forty-five years ago, in 1888, when she was “friend and soul-mate” (as she puts it) of the Scottish artist Ned Gillespie.

It has to be said the Harriet is also a well-meaning busybody with a high opinion of herself. Although, as she notes, it was not hard in 1888 Glasgow for folk to demonize her, an outsider, as a well-off, interfering  old maid from ‘down South’ who has designs on one of their men. And this, she claims, is what they did.

Harriet tells us right from the beginning of her account that she had “profound rapport” with Ned who, in her “humble opinion” was, at the time of his suicide, “about to reach the zenith of his creative powers”. She also mentions “that silly white-slave business and the trial”. So we, who are occasionally addressed in the Jane Austen manner as “Reader”, know that she is about to reveal details of the “sequence of profoundly affecting events” which wiped out Gillespie’s work, his life and their “most intimate of friendships”.

Harriet likes to tease her readers with hints of terrible revelations. Some, such as her discovery of the potentially scandalous and damaging (to Ned’s career) homosexuality of Ned’s brother, Kenneth, she discloses quite quickly. Others, like what happened to Rose, Ned’s youngest daughter, must wait. She implies early on that something bad happened to Rose, but just how bad and whether and in what way she was responsible, she does not discuss until much later. Even then, in spite of references to published reports and quoted testimonies, we have only Harriet’s version. We must trust her memory and her honesty. So, by the end of the book you feel you may need to read the whole thing again, especially as she develops a habit of interweaving chapters into her account which relate her current suspicions about her resident maid, and one begins to suspect that she is losing her grip on reality.

There is no doubting that Harriet’s first meeting with Ned Gillespie was accidental. Nor could she have engineered her life-saving intervention in the bizarre accident with false teeth suffered by Ned’s mother, Elspeth. She did not at the time even know that this was Ned’s mother and it was only at Elspeth’s bossy, extrovert insistence that she visited Elspeth’s Daughter-in -law’s home for afternoon tea and unexpectedly met Ned again. However, as more visits take place it becomes clear that however much Harriet rationalizes her actions she is more than casually interested in Ned. It is his art, of course, which interests her and which she evaluates, encourages and admires; and naturally the well-being of his whole family’s is of concern to her. Asking Annie, Ned’s wife, to paint her portrait is a shrewd and generous move, after Ned has declined the commission; and confronting caricaturist, Mungo Findlay, about a scandalous cartoon featuring Ned and his brother, which is due to be published just before a meeting of the Fine Arts Committee at which Ned’s suitability as a Royal portraitist will be judged, is a necessary intervention. Maybe Harriet’s enrollment in Ned’s art classes is a little suspect, but she is genuinely interested in art.

Harriet’s own word-portraits of Ned’s children Sibyl and Rose show that she has little experience of childhood jealousies, tantrums and mischief. She finds Sibyl difficult, sly and malevolent. But Sibyl, in fact, does perpetrate some awful deeds and she does become mentally deranged when her sister, Rose, disappears and she appears to have been responsible for this. And the whole of Harriet’s story, her relationship with Ned and his family, ends with the events which resulted from Rose’s disappearance.

Harriet’s story-telling style is lively, wry, opinionated and often very funny. In her, Jane Harris, has created a character we can believe in and, although you may not much like her, you can understand her and are inclined to take her at her word. The effect is subtle and only the dramatic events towards the end of Harriet’s account make you re-assess your trust in her. As, it seems, Ned did, too.

Only at the end of the book, too, are you likely to note that in Harriet’s preface to her story she gives her reasons for not writing sooner. “Perhaps I needed to gain some distance from a sequence of profoundly affecting events”, she writes. “Perhaps the act of committing this narrative to paper will free me of certain recurring dreams and (God willing!) diminish my eternal aching sadness about Ned Gillespie”. “Fair enough”, you think.

But then, in her penultimate chapter, she drops in a sentence about the recent publication of “a certain provocative little pamphlet” and offers a scornful but brief rebuttal of “Kemp’s theory”. Who, you wonder, was Kemp? Looking back, you find that Harriet mentions Kemp only once before as an “ink-slinger’, an “intrepid newspaperman” who rented a room opposite the Gillespie’s home in order to spy on them after Rose’s disappearance. She describes him as “a sallow, reptilian creature” whose “horrid visage” became “a permanent fixture in the lodging-house window”.

Was Kemp a despicable media hound or an astute journalist? Was he right about Harriet’s cunning? As always, we have only Harriet’s words on which to judge him and his accusations.

Copyright Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

REVIEW: The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

TITLE:  The Report
AUTHOR: Jessica Francis Kane
PUBLISHER: Granta  (March 2011)
ISBN: 978 184627 279 0     240 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

Authors find their inspiration in the most unexpected places. New Yorker, Jessica Francis Kane, found hers in a report published by Her Majesty’s Stationary Office which she picked up in the British Library bookshop. It deals with an incident which took place during the bombing of London in World War II and which is commemorated in a plaque at Bethnal Green Underground Station in London. The plaque reads:

Site of the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War
In memory of the 173 men, women and children who lost their lives on the evening of Wednesday 3 March 1943 descending these steps to Bethel Green Underground air raid shelter.
Not forgotten.

The deaths were not caused by a bomb, but by a sudden blockage on the stairs in which the victims were crushed.

A local Magistrate, Laurence Dunne, was given the task of investigating the incident in order to determine its cause. He struggled with conflicting accounts, traumatized survivors, racial tensions due to an influx of Jewish immigrants, rumours of secret bomb testing and new German weapons, and restrictions placed on information by a British government obsessed with the morale of the people. In the end, the government suppressed Dunne’s report until the war was over.

Thus far, the story is true.

Jessica Kane’s story begins thirty years later, when a young film maker, Paul Barber, decides to make a documentary about the accident and turns up on Laurence Dunne’s doorstep to interview him. Paul, it turns out, was one of the babies miraculously passed out of the tangle of bodies to rescuers. Central to the story, too, are Ada Barber and her daughter Tilly. They, too, were survivors of the crush, but Ada’s youngest child, Tilly’s little sister Emma, had died.

Through Dunne’s memories of his investigation, through the testimony of those who had been there at the time, and through the thoughts and actions of some whose lives had been affected by the whole incident, Kane recreates the atmosphere of East End London at that time.

At first, after reading Kane’s vivid recreation of that night, I was uncertain whether I wanted to go on reading about another wartime horror, but the same puzzle which had confronting Laurence Dunne drew me in. How had it happened? Why, on this particular night amongst so many others like it, had there been a problem? How could something so drastic happen and be over so quickly?

I became entangled, too, in the lives of Kane’s people. Not just in those of Paul and Dunne, Ada and Tilly, but in that of Bernard, an insecure young clerk who was given the terrible task of documenting the dead, listing what was found in their pockets and returning items their families. And of Clare, the young nurse who befriended Bernard and helped him through this trauma. Of Warden, James Low, who had changed a smashed light bulb on the stairs shortly before the accident but felt inexplicably responsible for the accident, and Sarah his wife. And of the Rev. McNealy, whose church lay close to the station entrance and who buried many of the dead and struggled to provide comfort to the living.

Kane effectively recreates the atmosphere of wartime London. The food and clothing shortages; the unrest cause by the influx of hundreds of Jewish refugees from Europe – the usual reaction of insular people to foreigners with foreign ways – exacerbated by a few racist trouble-makers; the daily exposure of its people to death, destruction and grief; and the friendships and community spirit which kept everyone going. But her story hinges on the mysterious cause of the accident, on something hidden which Dunne suspects and labours to uncover, and on his decisions about what to reveal and whether to ascribe blame is justified, appropriate or necessary.

Kane does not mention it, but there are resonances here with horrific modern accidents which catch the attention of the people who demand answers, reasons and scapegoats, and with the investigations which are instigated by various authorities and the reports which they eventually release. Can any one person be held responsible? Is it not a confluence of circumstances which trigger a disaster? How much good does a report do, or how much harm?

Paul, too, must consider these questions as he makes his documentary. And he, too, discovers uncomfortable facts about his past.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

REVIEW: Fifty Plants that changed the course of History by Bill Laws

TITLE:  Fifty Plants that changed the course of History
AUTHOR: Bill Laws
PUBLISHER:  Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781742372181    226 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

This is a handsome book. A delight to look at and a pleasure to hold. It is also a pleasure to read, not just because each page is beautifully illustrated but also because of the unusual, unexpected and fascinating histories it charts.

That said, this is a book for browsing, rather than for reading straight through. Each page is packed with facts. The Latin names and common names of each plant, a brief outline of its importance to us , the history of its uses and misuses, and countless small details (often presented in a separate box to the side of the main text) all give the reader a lot to absorb, but everything is presented in a humorous, easy-going way laced with plenty of curious anecdotes. Did you know, for example, that Queen Elizabeth I is reputed to have invented ginger-bread men to amuse her courtiers? Or that willow coffins are the latest must-have for the ecologically minded? Or, indeed, that Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, in about 1150 advised adding hops to drinks as a preservative?

Bill Laws’ choice of fifty plants which have changed the course of history (or, as the book’s blurb says “had the greatest impact on civilisation”) includes many that you would expect: tea, papyrus, cotton, tobacco and rice, for example. But there are also many unexpected inclusions, like lavender, saffron, Sweet Pea, the Dog Rose and pineapple. Pineapple finds a place here because this tropical “collection of individual fruits pressed together to form a whole” prompted such interest when it was first presented to the English King Charles II by his gardener, John Rose, that it caused much experimentation with pits of steaming manure and the building of  ‘glass houses’ to aid its cultivation in cold climates. After that, ‘hot-houses’ grew in size, sophistication and popularity, resulting eventually in huge constructions like Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in London and, on a much smaller scale, the conservatories and greenhouses which grace so many our modern, family gardens.

Other plants with long histories which are still part of our everyday lives are White Willow, the source of Asprin; Cacao, from which chocolate is made; and, more disturbingly, Coca and the Opium Poppy, both of which have valuable medicinal uses but which now also fuel the illicit drug trade and cause serious social problems.

Laws is outspoken about the evils some plants have caused and still cause: these include wars, slavery, smuggling, organized crime, addiction and ecological damage. Perhaps surprisingly, sugarcane is one plant he sees as both valuable and dangerous. It has been the historical cause of human misery through slavery and economic disasters, and now, with refined sugar in almost everything we eat, it has changed our digestive systems to the extent that sugar addiction is a serious cause of obesity and ill-health.

Bill Laws weaves together strands of ecological, political and agricultural history. His scope is worldwide and it ranges from the words of early herbalists and herbals to the discoveries of modern science. He draws inspiration from myth and legend, and, occasionally from the early philosophers. And the illustrations come from art, history, old magazines and modern botanical photography. Altogether, Laws has done a fine job and Quid Publishing, which conceived and designed this book, have made sure it looks as good as its contents.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

REVIEW: Poetry and Childhood by Joy, Whitley and Styles

TITLE: Poetry and Childhood
EDITORS: Styles,  Joy and Whitley
PUBLISHER:  Trentham Books, Westview House, 734 London Road, Stoke-on-Trent, ST4 5NP, England  (February 2011)
ISBN: 9781858564722     254 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

It is almost impossible to write a short review of this book. The essays in it are all of high quality but the range of topics and styles is as broad as the background, cultures and countries of the contributors. The best way of showing the variety and interest of this book is to list its contents at the end of these brief notes.

Gathered in Poetry and Childhood, are papers presented at a conference which took place in 2010 to complement the British Library’s exhibition Twinkle, Twinkle, little bat! 250 years of poetry for children. Although the publishers acknowledge that the book is primarily aimed at scholars and teachers, there is something here for anyone who is interested, as they put it, “in poetry and children”. Apart from a few essays, where readers who are not familiar with discourses, meta-discourses and signifiers and the jargon of modern literary criticism will be lost, this claim is true. There are historical papers, analytical papers, a fair amount of poetry from different countries (including the USA, Brazil, England and Ireland), some rude playground humour, and a degree of irony about the whole practice of theorising children’s poetry (anyone who has enjoyed Frederick Crew’s book, The Pooh Perplex will enjoy David Rudd’s dealings with Humpty Dumpty).

That there is no consensus between writers on what defines children’s poetry is as apparent in the title, Poetry and Childhood, as it is in the essays themselves. However, the two poets whose pieces bookend the collection, tackle the question in different ways and both write from their own experiences of sharing poetry with children. Michael Rosen, a former British Children’s Laureate, reminisces about his own childhood and young adulthood and the influence of his immigrant parents on his love of poetry. He tells of (and demonstrates with some of his poems) the ways in which having to read his poems to children changed him and his poems. Philip Gross writes of the need for ‘alongsidedness”: the need for adults and children to share and enjoy the reading and writing of poetry. He offers practical advice on how to go about this; and he presents some of the results of a poetry-writing exercise he shared with conference participants.

Understandably, in such a wide ranging selection, there are a few writers who seem to lose touch with the essential imagination and fun of the poetry itself. But in spite of the rather ponderous titles listed in the Contents (below), many of the essays are interesting, informative and full of curious details.

CONTENTS:

Foreword by Andrew Motion.
Introduction: Taking the Long View of the State of Children’s Poetry Today.

WHAT IS CHILDREN’S POETRY?

Theory, Texts and contexts: A Reading and Writing Memoir – Michael Rosen
Confronting the Snark: The Non-Theory of Children’s Poetry – Peter Hunt
What Is Children’s Poetry? Children’s Views of Children’s Poetry – Stephen Miles
Ted Hughes and the ‘Old Age of Childhood’ – Lissa Paul

POETS AND CHILDHOOD

‘Childish Toys’ for Boys with Beards: John Bunyan’s A Book for Boys and Girls – Pat Pinsent
‘Those first affections’: Wordswoth and Mournful Adolescence – Louise Joy
‘The Land of Play’: Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses – Shaun Holland
A.A Milne’s Poetic World of Childhood in When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six – Jean Webb
‘The Penny Fiddle’ and Poetic Truth – Michael Joseph
‘A child, barefoot: alone’: Innocence in Charles Causley’s Poetry – Debbie Pullinger
‘Not Not Nursery Rhymes’ and ‘Not Not Lullabies’: How Carol Ann Duffy and Pórarinn Eldjarn Refurnish the Nursery – Olga Holownia

TRADITIONS AND FORMS OF POETRY FOR CHILDREN

Humpty Dumpty and the Sense on an Unending – David Rudd
‘If it rhymes, it’s funny’: Theories of humour in Children’s Poetry – Karen Coats
Children’s Oral Poetry: Identity and Obscenity – C.W. Sullivan III
Poetry in Children’s Annuals – Victor Watson
Wicked Thoughts: Fairy-tale Poetry for Children and Adults – Laura Tosi

CHILDHOOD AND NATURE: CHANGING PERSPECTIVES

Anthropomorphism Dressed and Undressed in Beatrix Potter’s Rhymes and Riddles – Lorraine Kerslake
Once upon a time in the realms of Eden: Children’s Poetry in Brazil – Telma Franco Diniz
Animal Poems and Children’s Rights in America, 1820-1890 – Angela Sorby
‘Imaginary gardens with real toads in them’: Animals in Children’s Poetry – David Whitley

CHILDREN, TEACHERS, POETS, READERS

Poets in the Making: Ted Hughes, Poetry and Children – Peter Cook
Articulating the Auditory Imagination: When Children Talk About Poetry They Hear – John Gordon
The Affordances of Orality for young People’s Experience of Poetry – Joy Alexander
Exploring Poetry Teachers: Teachers Who Read and Readers Who Teach Poetry – Teresa Cremin

AFTERWORDS

Playing with words: Two children’s Encounters with Poetry from Birth – Virginia Lowe
Writing Alongside at the Poetry and Childhood Conference – Philip Gross

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

REVIEW: Brighton Rock by Graham Green

TITLE:  Brighton Rock
AUTHOR: Graham Greene
PUBLISHER: Random House  (January 2011)
ISBN: 9780099478478     PRICE: A$12.95  (paperback)  269 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

“He knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him”.

It is many years since I first read Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, but that opening sentence immediately drew me in again. Brighton, being just one hour by train from London, is still the seaside resort to which Londoners flock on hot weekends, public holidays and race-days. The Palace Pier is still almost as Greene described it  – a place for strolling couples, deckchairs, amusement arcades and music; and the Aquarium and many of the other places mentioned in the book are still there. But the 1930s slums have been replaced by trendy apartments and the trams no longer run from the Railway Station to the sea. Whether there is still “a nest of criminal activities, centring on its racetrack” (as J.M.Coatzee put it in his Introduction), I have no way of knowing but Greene’s chilling young gangster ‘Pinky” Brown surely has a modern counterpart amongst the drug-addicted, disaffected youth in any populous city such as Brighton.

Pinky’s determination to avenge the death of his gang boss, Kite, and his unwilling but increasingly necessary entanglement with the innocent local girl, Rose, who inadvertently threatens his alibi for murder, is at the centre of the story. With his casual, unfeeling violence, his dislike and distrust of women, his bravado and his repressed sexuality, Pinky is a very unpleasant character. But ranged against him is the indomitable Ida. Big bosomed, sympathetic, fun-loving and easy-loving Ida, with her firm belief in Right and Wrong, is determined to see that justice is done and that Rose is saved from her misguided love and loyalty to Pinky. Ida follows the thread of mystery surrounding the sudden death of her chance acquaintance, Fred (Kolley Kibber) Hale, to the bitter and dramatic end.

From this seemingly simple scenario, Greene wove a gripping story. He intended it to be filmed (and it was) and all the elements of cinema are there in its structure. “When I describe a scene”, Greene once told an interviewer, “I work with the camera, following my characters and their movements”. In Brighton Rock, this makes for vivid scenes, fast action and sharp dialogue, but there is depth to Green’s characters, too, and maybe more to think about(as J.M. Coatzee suggests in his Introduction) that is immediately apparent.

Coatzee’s Introduction, however, is prefaced with a spoiler alert: it reveals details of the plot. Predictably, he also discusses Greene’s Catholicism and its possible relevance to this story. Greene once rather tetchily said that he wanted to be viewed as an author who happened to be a Catholic, not as a Catholic author, and certainly Catholicism is part of this story (both Pinky and Rose are Catholic) but it is by no means an obvious part of the plot. Nevertheless, Coatzee’s comments are worth reading for the different perspective they offer.

Graham Greene was a masterly story-teller and Brighton Rock is still an exciting and enjoyable read. Now, thanks to Random House’s new paperback series of Vintage Classics, it is again easily and cheaply available.

The range of Vintage Classics can be seen at http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/vintage/vintageclassics/author.htm?authorID=5572

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

REVIEW: Proust’s Overcoat by Lorenza Foschini

TITLE: Proust’s Overcoat
AUTHOR: Lorenza Foschini
TRANSLATOR: Eric Karpeles
PUBLISHER: Portobello Books. (Allen & Unwin, PO Box 8500, 83 Alexander St. NSW 2065, Australia. January 2011)
ISBN: 9781846272714   128 pages.

This is a curious little book. It is not so much about Proust’s overcoat or about Marcel Proust himself but about a collector, a bibliophile, Jacques Guérin, whose passion for acquiring anything which had belonged to Proust – manuscripts, furniture, photographs, even his old overcoat – reads rather like a detective story.

Guérin was the bastard son of the famous French perfumier, Jeanne-Louise Guérin, whose own story, briefly told in this book, is as complex and fascinating as that of her son. As a young man, Jacques was trained by her as a ‘nose’ (one whose special olfactory gifts allow them to create unique and enticing perfumes) and he eventually took over the highly successful business of Parfums d’Orsay which she had founded. His real interest, however, and the primary focus of his life, became his growing collection of rare books, manuscripts and other ‘treasures’: and he had the wealth to indulge this passion.

Lorenza Foschini begins Proust’s Overcoat by describing the way in which an interview with costume designer, Piero Tosi, which she undertook for a television programme, led her to Guérin’s story. Tosi had begun to work on a  Visconti film of Proust’s most famous book, In Search of Lost Time. The film was eventually abandoned, but as part of his research Tosi had met Jacques Guérin, had been shown Proust’s overcoat, and had heard Guérin’s amazing story.

As a young man, Guérin had become a fascinated reader of Proust’s books. Then, a bout of appendicitis introduced  Dr Robert Proust, Marcel Proust’s brother, into his life. Calling on the good doctor after his  operation, Guérin was intrigued to learn that the massive and imposing bookcase and desk in the doctor’s rooms had been inherited from his brother. He was even more interested to be shown a stack of manuscript notebooks inside the cupboard which comprised the complete works of Marcel Proust.

In 1935, shortly after the announcement of Dr Robert Proust’s death, Guérin was exploring an antiquarian bookstore in the Faubourg Saint-Honoré when he discovered some proofs annotated by Marcel Proust. Talking to the bookseller about these, he learned that the bookcase and desk which he had seen in the doctor’s room were also for sale. He was introduced to a Monsieur Werner, who, over the next few years (and after much prodding and questioning) would sell him many Proust treasures which he had come to own through contact with Dr Robert Proust and his wife, Marthe. The final treasure, which Werner parted with after much delay, reluctance and embarrassment, and which he gave to Guérin free of charge, was a battered and worn overcoat which Mme Marthe Proust had given him to keep him warm when he went fishing. This overcoat, a dark, heavy woolen coat lined with otter fur, had been worn constantly by Marcel Proust from the time it was given to him by a friend in 1901. It had become legendary amongst his friends, because he was always seen in it, even at dinner. Finally, in the days before his death, it had kept him warm as he lay in his bed in unheated rooms (kept cool to help his asthma), pen and notebook held aloft, frantically finishing his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. Guérin, of course, was thrilled to have acquired it.

Guérin, writes Foschini, “had a taste for secrets and a love of hidden things”. Clearly she shares this love of fossicking out treasures and in this small book she follows Guérin’s tracks and tells, beautifully, his story, Monsieur Werner’s story, that of Dr Robert Proust and his wife and something, too, of Marcel Proust’s life. All of this is brought together by that battered relic, Proust’s overcoat, which now resides in a tissue-lined box in the Musée Carnavalet in Paris. Foschini’s book contains a number of the photographs of the Proust family which Guérin had collected, and, of course photographs of the coat itself as Foschini saw it, “laid like a shroud at the bottom of the box”. It reminded her, she says, of the words in another Marthe, Marthe Bibesco, whose memoir was published in 1978: “At the ball”, she wrote, “Marcel Proust sat down in front of me on a little guided chair, as if coming out of a dream, with his fur-lined cloak, his face full of sadness, and his night-seeing eyes”. The photograph of Marcel Proust which Foschini includes in her book shows him looking just like this.

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Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/

REVIEW: A Small Furry Hope by Steven Kotler

TITLE:  A Small Furry Hope: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life
AUTHOR: Steven Kotler
PUBLISHER:      Bloomsbury (December 2010)
ISBN: 9781408817344        307 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea (ann@skea.com).

Never judge a book by its cover. Especially this one! When the Australian edition arrived on my doorstep and I saw the title and the cute sleeping puppy on its cover, my heart sank. But Bloomsbury is not a publisher noted for cute and sentimental books and they have not let me down. The sub-title of the book explains it all: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life.

There is plenty of love in this book, plenty of heart-warming doggy stories and plenty of funny stories, but Steven Kotler’s experiences running a dog rescue sanctuary in Chimayo, New Mexico, prompt him to consider some very serious questions about our own lives and behaviour.

At the age of 40, suffering from Lyme disease, a growing dissatisfaction with his life, and prompted by a deepening attachment to Joy, who was already committed to dog rescue, he invested all his money and hope in a small farm in New Mexico. There, he hoped, he and Joy might create a sanctuary for dogs away from Council and landlord interference. This was the start of a steep learning curve, and his interaction with the dogs, the neighbours and the local area are often hilarious. Balancing this, his descriptions of dog-pounds, puppy-farms, mindless cruelty and terrified dogs, as well as his own reactions to the inevitable deaths, is shocking and moving.

Kotler has a strong ‘Californian’ voice, a blunt way of saying things, a wonderful sense of irony and a philosophical turn of mind.  It is this last which, towards the end of the book, tends to bog the reader down in ethical argument and scientific research as he marshals arguments to support his belief that animals, like us, have rights which deserve to be recognized. His small furry hope is that he can convince us of this, if not by letting us into the fascinating world he shares with his dogs, then by rational argument. Along the way, he covers ethics, altruism, shamanism, homosexuality, bereavement research, how wolves became domesticated dogs, and much more.  I was alternately delighted, intrigued and horrified. I laughed a lot, pondered a lot, and learned much about doggy behaviour, mirror neurons, the collective unconscious and flow states.

Running “real dog rescue requires real sacrifice”, says Kotler. And he defines ‘real’ rescue as the sort which aims to take the most abused, most disturbed, most threatened dogs from the pound and to try to rehabilitate them to adoption standards or to make what remains of their lives happy. This is what he and Joy do. And the day-to-day reality is of shit between the toes, sharing a bed with assorted dogs, spending all your money on vet fees and the best dog food, the agony of loss, and the agony of choice, whether of deciding which dog to rescue from the pound or when euthanasia is the best and kindest option. The reality, too, is  of the euphoria of hard-won success, the joy of being with the dogs, the wonderful characters and the amazing behaviour of some animals and, as a by-product, the fitness that comes from huge exercise routines undertaken  to calm aggression.

I treasure the image of Kotler walking assorted Chihuahuas (one wearing a pink, rhinestone-encrusted, ‘Playboy Special’ coat bought at a going-out-of business sale in LA) past  a gang of leather-clad Hells Angels bikies. And of him agreeing to hold the head of a half-anaesthetized Mountain Lion: “The fucking thing is bigger than a bowling ball. Absolutely, I’ll hold its head. And afterwards, to keep the party going, let’s drink some hemlock”. And I can still see him repeatedly following the bull-terrier, Igor, vertically up a canyon wall and precipitously down again: it felt, he says, “like being a skater on a ramp. Or a snowboarder in the half-pipe. It felt like I was eight years old. It was so much fun that I forgot what I was doing and just kept doing it”. Three hundred yards later he looked behind him and saw seven other dogs following them up and down the walls, and he swears they were laughing.

I am not convinced by the conclusion Kotler draws from his potted history of ethics: Plato to Nietzsche in a single paragraph, then on from Darwin to Richard Dawkins in a couple of pages. But his arguments for a better understanding of our own place in the animal kingdom and for greater respect for members of species other than our own are convincing.

This is a funny, sometimes shocking, thought-provoking and most unusual book. Steven Kotler is a dog-besotted philosopher, and whatever you think of his choice of life you have to admire him for his courage, his powers of observation, his capacity for endurance and for his determination to cling to a small furry hope for a better future for dogs.

Copyright © Ann Skea 2011
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/