Reading to Alleviate Stress

DSC_0803Only a short post today because I am still recovering from a stomach bug that I wouldn’t have wished on my worst enemy.  Being confined to the house for several days has, however, meant that I have had plenty of time to complete the first week of an online course that I think many of you would enjoy.  On the FutureLearn platform, the University of Warwick are offering a module entitled Literature and Mental Health.  The idea is to explore the way in which literature can be used to understand and help alleviate times of emotional stress and mental illness.  During the past week we have looked at poems such as Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree, Edward Thomas’ Adlestrop and Arnold’s Dover Beach. The highlight, however, was a half hour discussion between Jonathan Bate and Stephen Fry about the way in which poetry works and how that is important in respect of stress relief.  It was far more informative than many a university lecture I’ve sat through.

The course is going on to consider heartbreak, bereavement, trauma, depression and bipolar disorder, and ageing and dementia.  Although it has already started you are usually able to join late and the material is there online for you to catch up in your own time. This is something that I think a lot of my blogging friends would really enjoy and it would be worth people’s while to check it out even if you didn’t go through with it as it costs nothing to sign up to.  My only reservation is that there isn’t a section on poetry to alleviate stomach bugs.  My own thought on the subject is that whatever else they need to be short!

The Woman in Blue ~ Elly Griffiths

cover79291-mediumAs far as I am concerned there are few pleasures greater than a new novel from Elly Griffiths in her series featuring forensic archeologist, Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson.  When the publishers are kind enough to send me a review copy and I get the chance to read it over Christmas, then my cup runneth over.  And, a religious metaphor is more than apt in the case of the Griffiths’ latest offering, The Woman in Blue, which opens with Cathbad, cat-sitting in Walsingham, convinced that he has had a vision of the Virgin Mary walking through the local graveyard.

Now, I am well aware that if you haven’t read any of these novels you are going to find that statement puzzling.  If I add that Cathbad is a druid you might begin to wonder even more.  The back story to this series isn’t one that you can sum up in a few sentences.  All I can suggest is that for the moment you just ride with it and then, when you’ve read this review, give yourself the inestimable pleasure of starting at the beginning and reading all eight books straight through.  You won’t regret it.

In fact, it isn’t the Virgin Mary that Cathbad has seen but a flesh and blood young woman who will be found dead the following morning, setting off a hunt for the murderer that will continue throughout the period of Lent and culminate in the Passion Play celebrations on Good Friday.  Chloe Jenkins, a young model, is a resident at The Sanctuary,  a private hospital specialising in drug rehabilitation, and suspicion for what appears to be her motiveless murder falls initially on another of the hospital patients.  However, the evidence is not entirely convincing and Nelson’s instincts tell him that he probably hasn’t got the right man.  Furthermore, there is also the question of who it is that is writing threatening letters to a friend of Ruth’s, Hilary Smithson, once also an archaeologist but now a priest attending a course in Walsingham on preparing for Episcopacy.  The letter writer has a problem with women becoming priests, let alone bishops.  Is it possible that they and the murderer are one and the same?  When a second body is found and it turns out to be one of the other women priests on the course, the probability seems more likely.

Well, it may not have been the Virgin Mary that Cathbad saw but the question of motherhood and of who has a claim on a mother figure is central to the novel.  It is not only at the heart of the murder investigation but is also influential in respect of the motive behind the threatening letters, whose writer sees women as having a prescribed role in the Christian life, one that centres primarily on the vocation of motherhood.  Griffiths has previously used Ruth’s position as a professional, working, single mother to tackle issues of gender equality.  Here she takes that further and explores the question of what happens when a woman asserts a right to a vocation that has previously been the sole patrimony of men and, in so doing, threatens what they have seen as their right to power.

However, being Griffiths, she addresses what could be controversial subjects with a wit that undercuts any sense of real animosity.  One of the most notable features of this series is the wry humour of the third person narrator, who, reporting events in a crisp present tense, sees all, knows all and casts an ironic eye over all proceedings: a narrator who has a greater claim to omniscience than even Nelson’s Catholic mother.  And as Nelson’s conscience knows, that is saying something.  I could fill pages with examples of the way in which this narrator captures a character or a situation with only a few telling words but to give you a taste I’ll offer just a couple of examples.

Here is Nelson’s Sergeant, Dave Clough, a character whose basic goodness we have steadily learnt to appreciate but who, truth to tell, still has his moments, bemoaning the absence of his co-worker, Judy.

‘She’ll probably bring the baby with her and insist on breastfeeding all over the office.’

That’s the thing about Clough, thinks Ruth, as she says goodbye and follows the signs to the Anglican shrine.  Just when he’s being human, he says something that reminds you what a Neanderthal he can be.  Except that Neanderthals probably had a more enlightened attitude towards breastfeeding.

Bless him, he tries, he really does try.

And then, just to be evenhanded on the gender front, here is Nelson handing out assignments to a rather over zealous young female detective.

He turns to Tanya, who sits up even straighter.  ‘Chloe was doing an online course.  Something to do with angels.  Can you follow it up?  Find out a bit more about it?’

‘Yes, boss.’  Tanya sounds less than enthusiastic to be given the angel brief. Nelson decides to cheer her up.  ‘But first you can go to Walsingham and co-ordinate the scene-of-the-crime search.  They’re concentrating on the area where Chloe’s body was found’.

Tanya brightens immediately.  Co-ordinating is almost as good as being in charge.

Tanya is another one who means well, but who really does have to learn to take herself less seriously.

As a crime writer, Griffiths sits in a sort of middle ground between the cozy and the streetwise.  There is nothing cosy about the murders that Nelson investigates, but this sense of irony that pervades the novels consistently serves to undercut the worst of the horrors.  However, like any good writer of detective fiction she always has something to say about the complexity of the human condition and this very enjoyable novel is no exception.

(With thanks to Quercus who made this available for review.)

The Promise ~ Alison Bruce

The-PromiseOn a number of occasions over the course of Alison Bruce’s Cambridge based police procedural series DI Marks has commented on just how totally impossible it would be to run a team that consisted of half a dozen DC Goodhew clones. Personally, I have always wondered how he manages with just one. Not that I dislike Bruce’s lead character, Gary Goodhew. It would be hard to dislike a young man who is so clearly devoted to bringing justice to those who have suffered at the hands of some seriously vicious murderers.  However, following the leaps of understanding that his mind makes and the consequent byways he explores, often directly against orders, demands a certain amount of mental dexterity on the part of the reader and a lot of tolerance on the part of DI Marks.  I have worked in hierarchical situations where Goodhew wouldn’t have lasted a week.  I suppose the clear-up rate which he has been responsible for over the course of the last six novels has helped and in this latest instalment, The Promise, the fact that this includes not just the immediate murder but also unsolved crimes from the past has to be a factor in his favour as well.

The current murder, and the one which brings Gary back to work before he is officially considered fully recovered from the fall that made him question his place in the police service for himself, is that of Ratty, a homeless man who has, in the past, offered information that Goodhew has been able to use in his pursuit of justice.  Gary is concerned that his immediate superior, DS Kincaide, will not investigate the crime with the resolve that he thinks it deserves simply because of Ratty’s standing (or lack thereof) in the community.  He is, of course, right to be so concerned.  If a team made up of Gary Goodhews is a scary prospect, one composed entirely of the Kincaides of this world is downright depressing.  Good at cutting corners, not beyond tampering with the evidence and a menace to any woman he happens to take a fancy to, DS Kincaide makes you despair for the police service.  Thank goodness then for Goodhew and the ever developing PC Sue Gully who recognise not only that Ratty deserves as much consideration as the next victim but also that the horrific facial mutilation he has suffered suggests that he is unlikely to have been the killer’s first target.  Their search for the motive behind the killings and the significance of the mutilations takes them through the back streets of Cambridge and into the murky world of the lock-up garage. Just how many are there?  And what do they contain?

Alongside the main investigation Bruce runs the continuing story of Goodhew’s background.  Over the course of the preceding novels we have gradually learnt more of why he has been brought up in the main by his formidable grandmother and in this novel we start to uncover the enigma behind his grandfather’s death and the role that DI Marks played in the subsequent investigation.  The book concludes with Gary finally managing to recall what his part in those events was and, knowing his determination to get to the bottom of any mystery, I would imagine that the next in the series will see him following his own instincts to discover what actually happened to Goodhew Senior.  Whether or not he will do that from within the police service is, of course, another matter.  DI Marks has taken retirement and the possibility of finding another superior officer willing to give Goodhew the licence he has so far enjoyed seems to me to push the boundaries of credibility just a wee bit too far.  Nevertheless, I shall be there to find out and hope that we don’t have to wait quite as long for the next novel as we had to for this.

(With thanks to Little Brown Book Group who made this available for review.)

Finding Time To Read

tumblr_lptmh1EY1E1r1sle6o1_500There was an article in the paper on Tuesday about a new venture in the French city of Grenoble.  Apparently, they have installed a number of automatic dispensers which schpeel out free printed short stories for frustrated citizens waiting for their turn to encounter various forms of bureaucracy.  After they have taken a number for whichever queue they have joined said citizens can then push another button to receive a short story on a scrolled piece of paper that is not dissimilar to a till receipt. It seems that this has gone down a storm, with satisfied readers quoted as saying that they are transported out of the waiting room and into a ‘happy moment’ with new and interesting characters. Apparently, the stories take between one and three minutes to read.  All I can say is that bureaucratic queues must be a darned sight shorter in Grenoble than they are in England.

This did, however, raise yet again that perennial question of just how do you manage to find the time to read.  Part of me may be quite envious of those short French queues, but I have to admit that having the freedom to read uninterrupted in waiting rooms not only makes waiting far less stressful, but also, paradoxically, means that sometimes our English queues move too fast. All readers know the joy of the half a dozen snatched moments, but they are never enough and nine times out of ten we get to the end of a day and wonder just how that book we are reading got sidelined yet again.

In theory this should be absolutely no problem at all for me.  I am retired and I have no immediate family to make calls on my time, and indeed, when I first gave up work I did seem to be able to do all the reading and associated blogging that I wanted to.  But, I had to give up work on health grounds and for the first six months I did very little other than read and force myself out for a daily walk.  Now I’m back up and running (or at least ambling) again and out and about in the community it doesn’t seem so easy to carve out the hours that I want.

Lot of people talk as if they have found the answer but when you dig into what they have to suggest there is very often little substance behind their remarks. There was a discussion on the radio about ten days ago after a query as to how to choose what to read given the amount of fiction that is published these days.  The ‘expert’ didn’t really answer that question (which was a shame, because that is another perennial problem) but diverted off into the issue of time, however, all she actually came out with was that you had to prioritise. Well, yes, I can see that.  But how do I actually set about doing it?

I do all the things I’m supposed to.  I never go anywhere without a book, or at least (given back problems) without an ereader.  I watch very little television and apart from blogging spend almost no time at all on social media.  I would be loath to give up blogging because half the pleasure of a good book is ‘talking’ about it with other people.  I can’t do the ‘go to bed half an hour later and get up half an hour earlier’ thing because if I don’t get my seven hours I wouldn’t be any good for the reading time I do get.

So, what are your tricks for extending out the reading time?  I know you must have some because many bloggers read and review far more than I do.  What am I missing and how can I improve?

Sunday Round-Up

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3I was hoping to get several more reviews written over the course of this past week but, as so often happens, life got in the way, so in lieu I’ll just offer a few quick thoughts about the two most recent book group discussions on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

The group with which I read The Children Act were most exercised by whether or not the main character, Fiona Maye, was believable. For me, however, this wasn’t really the issue.  I think I’ve reached the point where I just accept that McEwan has no idea how women think and behave and so I let that stand as a given and concentrate on what else I think he is concerned with.  In this novel I was more interested in what it was he was trying to say about the law and the individual’s relationship with it.  It seems clear to me that this is his primary interest.  Why else start with what is an overt reference to Dickens’ Bleak House?

London.  Trinity term one week old.  Implacable June weather.

I decided in the end that what McEwan was trying to examine was the way in which, even in situations where our children’s wellbeing is at stake, we want to place the onus of decision onto an outside body, despite the fact that, in his opinion, this is to abdicate our personal responsibility.  He offers several examples of families passing through the courts whose children are in need of medical or educational intervention and in each instance there is a sense of parental relief when the outcome is decided by someone else.  However, he also provides examples of two such cases where the judge concerned has made a mistake that has had life long repercussions for the families involved and his ffinal* verdict on Fiona appears to be that she needs to recognise her responsibility to exercise judgment in her behaviour towards children outside of the trappings of the court as well as within.

There are a lot of seems and appears in that because I don’t think McEwan manages to make his point of view clear, possibly because, as so many of the group recognised, he doesn’t make Fiona herself believable.  And, while I don’t disagree with the idea that we all need to take responsibility for the welfare of society in general and especially of children, I’m also bothered by an approach which seems to question the centrality of the judiciary.  Yes, they sometimes get it wrong, but what happens if you take the law away?  I have run across a number of literary instances recently that very strongly make the point that if the law is bent, neglected or personalised then the very pillars on which society stands are threatened.  I’m teaching The Merchant of Venice this term and not only The Duke and Balthazar/Portia recognise the irretrievable damage that will be done to the State if Shylock is denied his bond, so too does Antonio, who very definitely has the most to lose.  Then, it’s not long since I reviewed Claire McGowan’s latest Northern Ireland based novel, The Silent Dead, where the question of retaliatory ‘justice’ is foregrounded and in which the ffinal* judgment is that however fflawed* the justice system might sometimes be it is infinitely superior to what would happen if there was no system at all.  And I have never been able to forget the conversation between Thomas More and his son-in-law in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

We take decisions out of the hands of the law at our own peril, I think.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a much happier reading experience. I was so glad that this had been chosen because I have been trying to ffind* time to read more David Mitchell ever since being bowled over by The Bone Clocks, however, he is not a writer you can hurry and there just hasn’t been a large enough space when I could explore his earlier novels.

As far as Mitchell goes, this, I understand, is a comparatively straightforward narrative, although exploring a complexity of issues, mostly to do with the question of translation.  Many of the main characters in the novel are interpreters who work for the Japanese state as linguistic go-betweens for the ruling powers and the Dutch traders of the late eighteenth century.  But, while they may haltingly fffind* the words for a literal translation, interpreting the society behind the words is a very different matter.  Even as the novel draws to a close the reader is left puzzling over a nation that can be so isolationist that it will not allow a son who is half Japanese and whose mother is dead to leave to be with his Dutch father.  The writing is beautiful, the characterisation superb, but it is a solid read, so don’t embark on it unless you have the time to give it the attention it deserves.

I hope the forthcoming week is going to be slightly easier, especially as I’ve already got behind in my course on Dorothy L Sayers and could do with a few spare hours to catch up.  I have discovered, however, that it is possible to have too much of a good thing even where books are concerned, and my reading of the Wimsey novels has slowed considerably.  In particular, I fell foul of Five Red Herrings, which I seem to remember not being very keen on when I read the books the ffirst* time round.  I’m now half way through Have His Carcase and should really do my best to ffinish* it over the weekend.   What are your plans for a damp and soggy Sunday afternoon, I wonder?

N.B.  I do know how to spell the words marked thus*, but the WordPress program is refusing to spell them with just one ‘f’.  It’s two or nothing, so I have chosen to go for two.  Is anyone else having this problem?

After You Die ~ Eva Dolan

cover77357-mediumTwo years ago I reviewed Long Way Home, Eva Dolan’s first novel featuring DI Zigic and DS Ferreira of the Peterborough Hate Crime Department, and heaped on it the praise I felt it so justly deserved.  The only concern that I voiced was whether or not it would be possible to ring the changes sufficiently given that the motive behind the crimes that they encountered was likely to be similar in each case. I need not have worried. Long Way Home tackled the exploitation of immigrant labour. Since then we have had Tell No Tales, which dealt with issues to do with right wing extremism and now, at least initially, it seems that behind the murder currently under investigation may lie prejudice against those who are disabled.  It is, to say the least, disturbing to realise just how wide the brief is of those who investigate Hate Crimes.

After You Die occurs some months after the conclusion to the enquiry detailed in Tell No Tales and Mel Ferreira is now back at work after the horrific injuries she suffered in the course of that investigation.  Inevitably matters have been let slip while she has been recovering and so when the first news comes in of the death of Dawn Prentice and her disabled daughter, Holly, Mel’s immediate response is to question whether or not she is at fault.  The previous summer Dawn had made a number of complaints about harassment she and Holly were suffering as a result of Holly’s recent paralysis.  Although they were followed up at the time, Ferreira now wonders if she shouldn’t have pursued the issue further, even though the complaints tailed off.  But, as the investigation progresses, it begins to look as though the focus of the attack has in fact been Dawn and that whoever killed her assumed that Holly would be found while she was still alive.  Attention shifts to those who might have wished the woman harm, including her ex-husband and a number of men she has met through internet dating sites.

There is also, however, the question of why eleven year old Nathan, the foster child of Dawn’s friend Julia, has suddenly taken off into the blue.  He was a frequent visitor at the house.  Has he seen something that has scared him?  Why is no one willing to talk about his background?  Is it possible that Nathan himself committed the crime?  DI Zigic finds himself blocked at every turn as he tries to discover what it is about the youngster’s history that makes those who should be supporting the investigation refuse to co-operate.

There are several issues currently in the public eye raised in the course of this novel.  There have been a number of cases in the news recently where the police have not followed up on reports of harassment and as a result the complainants have been terribly injured or even killed.  The question of the evil that is internet trolling is also explored.  Ultimately, however, it seems to me that what this book is really concerned with is the vulnerability of children, both physically and psychologically, and the terrible damage that can be done to them, deliberately or otherwise, by those adults who are careless of their well-being.  Children proliferate in this story.  There are Zigic’s two boys as well as his unborn daughter.  In addition to Nathan, Julia fosters a second child, Caitlin, and is pregnant herself.  Then there is, of course, Holly, and also Benjamin, the son of the woman her father is now living with.  Not all of these children are innocents, but for the most part those who prove to be capable of acts of violence have been shaped by the adults they have encountered earlier in their lives.  Our children become the people that we help them grow into and if the significant adults in their lives (including those in authority who should take lasting care of them) abuse them either physically or through neglect, we have to recognise that there will be consequences.

This is a very accomplished novel.  I knew when I first encountered Eva Dolan that I would want to read whatever she wrote next and subsequent books have only reinforced that opinion.  Her characterisation has always been strong.  What is noticeably developing is her ability to offer a plot with clear lines of development and a strong underlying theme.  I very much look forward to the next novel in the series.

(With thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Harvill Secker who made this available for review.)

Year of the Fat Knight ~ Antony Sher

51Sdn5uTyaL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_As you will by now have gathered Shakespeare is big in my life. And, because I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford, the same is true of the Royal Shakespeare Company.  I saw them on stage for the first time in 1962 and have been a constant visitor ever since.  I have dozens of memorable productions stowed away in my memory and not a few of them have features performances by Antony Sher.

Now, I know that Sher is something of a marmite actor: you love him, or you hate him.  I have one friend who refuses to see any further performances of Richard III because she wants nothing to diminish her memory of his 1984 interpretation.  I have other friends who pointedly avoid anything he’s in.  Personally, I am a fan.

I first saw Sher in 1982 playing the Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear.  This was not long after I had started out on what was to prove to be a nineteen year marathon during which I studied for three successive degrees at the same time as holding down a full-time job.  Going to the theatre was about the only other activity I found time for and over that period of nearly two decades Tony Sher was one of a small number of actors who never failed to stimulate me and send me out of the theatre with new ideas careering round my brain. I didn’t always agree with his interpretations (the least said about his Malvolio the better) but he was never there just to make up the numbers.  It was fitting, then, if completely unexpected, to turn up for my third and final graduation ceremony and find that he was the Honorary Graduand.  He gave a speech that day which managed to turn what had been threatening to be a very embarrassing morning, centred round a hard-nosed plea for money from the university’s Chancellor, into what it should have been, a celebration of the achievements of the young people who had worked so hard and long for their degrees.  I wrote to him afterwards to thank him and received a very generous response.  As I say, I am a fan.

I am always glad then to see another in his series of diary accounts chronicling his journey towards the creation of a new part.  There have now been three of these:  The Year of the KingWozza Shakespeare, and most recently, Year of the Fat Knight.  The first was concerned with Richard III, the second, written jointly with his partner, Greg Doran, focused on a production of Titus Andronicus staged in post Apartheid South Africa, and the third about the current production of the Henry IVs.

I love the Henry IVs.  They are up there amongst my favourite plays, especially Part II, which I think has a melancholy all of its own.  And, I have seen some cracking productions over the years.  So I was delighted when they were announced for the 2014 season with Sher cast as the reprobate, Falstaff.  I didn’t share the doubts about his ability to play the role that he seems to have had and in fact, the early sections of this journal centre around the question of whether or not he is going to agree to take the part on.  Some of the most interesting discussion focuses on why many of our greatest character actors have refused to agree to play Falstaff.  Both Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen had turned it down before it was offered to Sher and neither Olivier nor Gielgud ever played the part.  As Sher says Gielgud would have been the Don Quixote of Falstaffs and like him I’d have paid blood to see [Scofield] do it.

Once committed to the role Sher sets about discovering the Falstaff he can play and we go on the journey with him as he mines the text for indications of what it is that makes the fat knight recognisable to us as a real human being.  This is a painstaking process and for someone like me, who is of an age with the actor, one I can empathise with, especially when he talks about the growing difficulty of learning lines.  I didn’t think that there was as much analysis of the part and of the plays as there had been in the earlier books and felt this as a loss, but there is still much discussion of the rehearsal process and given that he was talking about people I have become familiar with over the past couple of seasons and spaces that I know very well, the book was nevertheless a very enjoyable read.

The added bonus where this journal is concerned is that it is now possible to go back and watch the plays again in the light of the journey Sher has laid before us.  Recordings are available and although they will never quite catch the magic of the live performance it’s a darn sight better than not being able to see it at all.  If you are a lover of Shakespeare or simply a lover of the theatre in general then I recommend a weekend spent with this book and the DVDs of the two plays.  You won’t regret the time spent.

My Name Is Lucy Barton ~ Elizabeth Strout

41yYCG48DSL__SX336_BO1204203200_-203x300Very very rarely you come across a book that is so close to perfection that writing about it yourself seems like an act of sacrilege.  Having just finished Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, all I want to do is hide myself away and think about the enormity of her achievement in a book that runs to only two hundred pages and which my e-reader tells me can be read in just over an hour.  But, if I do that then how can I spread the word about a work that I want everyone to read?  So, almost reluctantly, I will try to give you some idea of the immense depth of human emotion that Strout is exploring in this small miracle of a novel, without trespassing too much on the work itself.

Lucy Barton is a writer and in this book, her book, she reflects on an incident many years earlier when she was unexpectedly hospitalised for nine weeks. During this time her mother, whom she has not seen for many years, visits her for five days.  The relationship between them is taut with unexpressed, unrecognised emotions, most particularly with a love to which neither of them can give voice.  Here, then is one of the subjects that Strout offers for our consideration, the relationship between mother and daughter.  What, she asks, is the extent of a mother’s responsibilities towards her daughter?  More pertinently, perhaps, to what extent is a daughter’s sense of identity shaped by her mother.  For the other important question that the author raises in the book is that of where our sense of identity comes from.  How do we develop a sense of self, a sense of our place in the world?

Strout explores many possible answers to this, answers which range from external signifiers:

the clothes I wore were me

through measuring ourselves against others:

I had never seen children going into Jeremy’s apartment.  Only a man or two, or sometimes a woman.  The apartment was clean and spare: A stalk of purple iris was in a glass vase against a white wall, and there was art on the walls that made me understand how far apart he and I were

to the ways in which others treat us.

And this is yet another area of concern for Strout: the way in which someone can be diminished in their own eyes by the disdain of another human being.

I was standing one day on the front stoop, and as he came out of the building I said, “Jeremy, sometimes when I stand here, I can’t believe I’m really in New York City. I stand here and think, Whoever would have guessed?  Me! I’m living in the City of New York!”

And a look went across his face – so fast, so involuntary – that was a look of real distaste.  I had not yet learned the depth of disgust city people feel for the truly provincial.

Strout develops this particular question further, not only considering the ways in which one person might feel superior to another but also the perhaps more interesting question of why such a feeling of superiority is so important to us.

I have said before.  It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people.  It happens all the time.  Whatever we call it, I think it is the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

And as Lucy knows, the effects of such a put down can be out of all proportion to the words spoken: a tiny remark and the soul deflates.  

Lucy has fought hard to establish and maintain her own identity.  What becomes apparent as we read about her life is how difficult this can be and what terrible costs can be exacted as a result.

Like many readers, I first came across Elizabeth Strout’s work when Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize.  What struck me then about her writing and what is even more apparent in this latest work is her ability to say more that is true about character and emotion in half a dozen lines than most writers manage in a similar number of chapters.  I loved Olive Kitteridge, as I have loved her other three novels, but for me My Name is Lucy Barton outstrips all of them.  I will not read a better book this year.

A Spool of Blue Thread ~ Anne Tyler

51IxhCyQpLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_About a third of the way through Anne Tyler latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, the entire Whitshank family set off to spend a week at the beach.  This isn’t a spur of the moment vacation.  Not only do the Whitshanks spend the same week on the Delaware coast every summer, they spend it in the same house.  And, they are not the only family with fixed habits when it comes to taking a holiday.

“The next-door people are back,” Jeannie called, stepping in from the screen porch.

Next door was almost the only house as unassuming as theirs was, and the people she was referring to had been renting it for at least as long as the Whitshanks had been renting theirs.  Oddly enough, though, the two families never socialized.

They may not socialise, but the Whitshanks do speculate about the nature of the family and watch for changes year by year.

[T]hey continued to come, the mother taking her early morning walks along the beach…the daughters in the company of boyfriends who metamorphosed into husbands, by and by, and then a little boy appearing and later a little girl.

“The grandson has brought a friend this year,” Jeannie reported.  “Oh, that makes me want to cry.”

“Cry! What for?” Hugh asked her.

“It’s the … circularity, I guess.  When we first saw the next-door people the daughters were the ones bringing friends, and now the grandson is, and it starts all over again.”

“You sure have given these folks a lot of thought,” Hugh said.

“Well, they’re us, in a way,” Jeannie said.

And, just as the Whitshanks watch the changes in the next-door family so we, the readers, do the same for them. When the book begins we have as unfocused a notion of the dynamics in Tyler’s Baltimore family as their holiday neighbours do.  Do we

find the Whitshanks attractive?  Intriguing?  [Do we] admire their large numbers and their closeness? Or [have we] noticed a hidden crack somewhere?

Well, if we haven’t noticed the crack, indeed the cracks, by the time we read about the annual holiday then we haven’t been paying enough attention, because what Tyler gives us in this novel is a portrait of an apparently stable, loving family that unwinds as we observe it.  Like a spool of thread which, when first purchased, appears tightly bound and compact, the moment you start to pull at a loose end the whole structure begins to fall apart. What is more, once that has happened, you can never rewind and recover the sense of completeness and perfection that you had before.  Indeed one crack exposes another and then another until there is little left of the image with which you began.

The process begins slowly enough.  We are aware from early on that the elder Whitshank boy, Denny, is a source of family disquiet, but it isn’t until Denny himself, in a reported conversation with Abby, his mother, drops the bombshell that Stem, the youngest Whitshank, is in fact not a Whitshank at all, that the process really begins to gain momentum.  And from then on in we watch as all that we have been led to believe about the stability of the family, all the stories that they have told about the Whitshank past, the stories on which their sense of who they are is built, crumbles before our eyes.  We move back through the generations, discovering at each stage how different the reality of the Whitshank’s family history is from the picture that they present to the world.

And yet, they are still Whitshanks.  Oh, it may be Stem, the abandoned child, who shares their name but not their blood, who takes on that family name in the form of the business, but it the end it is Denny who proves himself to be the direct descendent of those first Baltimore Whitshanks, Junior and Linnie Mae.  In a reflection of the circularity that Jeannie recognised in their beach-side neighbours, the novel concludes with Denny’s return to a woman who clearly loves him but to whom, in an echo of his grandfather’s earlier behaviour, he has been unable to commit, and we are left with the sense that perhaps this time he really will be able to build a relationship that has some lasting stability.  It may not be as strong or as perfect as they would like the world to think, but it will have a utility out which a future can be forged.   Some of that trailing thread is being rewound and while it may not be possible to return it to its original pristine condition it will serve for the day to day purpose of holding a family together.

While the Whitshanks may not be the picture of family perfection that they would like to appear, Tyler’s depiction of them comes pretty close to perfection.  Time and again I found myself drawing parallels between situations in either my own family or those of people to whom I am close enough to have been allowed to see the cracks.  And for me, I think her greatest achievement is the sense of hope that she provides for such families.  Because, despite the flaws, the difficulties, the betrayals, that we witness, in the end we recognise there is still love in this family, there is still mutual support, there is still a sense that while the thread may not be as tightly bound as it could be, they are all part of that same spool.  This may be a novel that charts our growing awareness, as outsiders, of the dysfunctional nature of the Whitshank family, but ultimately it is also a novel that says, in fact, any family at which you look closely is probably going to be pretty dysfunctional one way and another.  But you know what?  In the end they are going to survive because they are bound by that blue thread and as long as it isn’t actually severed it can be wound back in and remain whole.  And, as Jeannie points out, the family we are observing is us, in a way, which means that Tyler is also saying that there is a good chance for the survival of any family, just so long as you’re willing to hold on tight to the end of that spool of blue thread.

Beware… The Green-Eyed Monster

imagesIt can have escaped very few people’s notice that 2016 is the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and celebrations of various sorts are popping up all over the place. (Question:  At what point does it become acceptable to stop mourning someone’s death and start celebrating it instead?  Is there a rule of thumb, I wonder? And why do we celebrate Shakespeare’s death only once a century but that of Guy Fawkes every year? Funny things, we humans.)

It will also have escaped the notice of very few of my blogging friends that much of my life is spent engaging with Shakespearian study in one form or another.  You won’t be surprised, therefore, to hear that I am seriously excited about all the events that are going on locally, and as I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford that is likely to be a fair few.  I suppose, then, that I really have no right to feel aggrieved that some of the celebrations I would most like to join in with are not going to be within either my geographical or financial reach.  Well, let me tell you, rights or not, I do, and one particular set of events, which caught my attention in the weekend papers, I really regret missing.

At the Barbican in London the RSC are screening a season of films of the company’s past productions.  These are not the more recent shows which have been relayed through cinemas worldwide over the past couple of years, but rather performances, some of which go back as far as the fifties, that for one reason or another were captured on film and in some cases given only a single television airing.  I would be fascinated to view any of these, but there is one in particular that I would love to see again because it was the film of this production that was responsible for starting me off on the long road that has led to more than fifty years of  Shakespearian studies.

Talk about an act of serendipity.  It was a Thursday evening, my mother was out and I noticed in the Radio Times that there was a showing scheduled of As You Like It.  Why did I want to see it?  I have no idea, other than perhaps the fact that it was theatre and I had been a theatre addict since I was two.  But theatre in our house meant pantomimes, musicals and the occasional light comedy.  It definitely didn’t mean Shakespeare.  Well, I had always been able to wrap my father round my finger (I doubt I would have got away with it had Mom been in!) and, of course, there wasn’t the choice of viewing available then, so we watched it.

I know now that what I saw that night was a recording of the newly-formed RSC’s production of the play from 1961, with Vanessa Redgrave giving a performance as Rosalind that many critics claimed as definitive.  (Certainly, I had to wait until Pippa Nixon’s interpretation for the same company in 2013 for one that came anywhere near it.)  You can read Michael Billington’s memories of the production here.  At the time I knew nothing of the play, the company or the actors, I simply knew that from the moment the broadcast began I was hooked.  And the high point of the whole evening came when, as Rosalind/Ganymede, began to berate Phoebe for her treatment of Silvius, I realised, before it happened, that the shepherdess was going to fall helplessly in love with a woman she thought was a man.  That’s when the light bulb went on, when the fireworks began to soar, whatever metaphors you want to use.  That was the moment when I knew that all those centuries earlier Shakespeare had looked down through the ages, seen a young girl being brought up in one of Birmingham’s red light districts and had decided to write his plays just for her.  The bus to Stratford stopped at the bottom of our road.  Within days I was making a journey that was to be the start of the rest of my life.

You hear people talk about having their life changed in an instant.  Well, I am one of those people.  If I hadn’t sat down to watch that specific production on that long ago Thursday evening, I have no idea who I would be now, but I suspect it would be someone very different.  Perhaps it’s better that I don’t see the performance again but just keep it in my memory as a gift from the gods for which I will be eternally grateful.