After the Cull

341df81e231750e5c7f0523db256ffa3Quite some time ago I wrote a post about the need to instigate a book cull.  I was perfectly prepared to live in a house where I could hardly move for piles of books in unexpected places but, when it came to having to up my car insurance because I could no longer get my tiny little Peugeot into a reasonably large garage, I decided that something had to be done.  I asked for help.

Well, many of you responded, most often with suggestions as to where I might take the books that were going to have to go.  Unfortunately, that was really no problem.  I have a plethora of charity shops locally, some of whom are even willing to take the academic books that I no longer need.  No, the real problem was sorting out which books to keep and which to send out into the world seeking new owners.  How do you cut once treasured volumes adrift and tell them to go and find another home?

So, I did what any self-respecting bibliophile would do – I prevaricated.  Have I ever told you that I am a world-class prevaricator?  No?  Well now I have. DSCF0001However, (un)fortunately for me, I live with several very decisive Bears who were simply no longer willing to tolerate the risk of being flattened by a toppling pile of books.  Entreaties were made.  And, when they didn’t work, threats were uttered!

Eventually, I had to give in, and although I think there is still some work to be done in the garage (I am never going to lecture in Children’s Literature again, but I do love reading about it) the house side of things is now a little less hazardous for all concerned.

My first act was to separate everything out into fiction and non-fiction. Surprisingly, the fiction was easier to manage.  To start with, two piles – those that I had read and those that I hadn’t.  The second pile was definitely larger than the first.  Like so many bibliophiles I buy far more books than I can ever hope to read. My doctoral supervisor (a man with even worse hoarding problems than my own) once said to me that the day he came to terms with his own mortality was the day he realised that he had more unread books on his shelves than he could possibly get through in his remaining life time even if he were to never do anything other than read for the rest of his days.

Some of the books in that unread pile were definitely mistakes. I have no idea why I bought them in the first place.  Perhaps I felt that I couldn’t possibly come out of whichever shop I was in without first buying something.  As the daughter of a small shop owner, that is actually quite likely.  They went straight into the charity shop box.  The rest, probably about two hundred (I didn’t dare count) went back on the shelves.

The ones I’d read went into three piles:  those that I couldn’t part with at any price, those that I knew I could live without and around half a dozen about which I couldn’t decide.  At some point I am going to have to read that last group again and pass a final judgement – in or out.

Two shelves for the first group, more boxes for the second and an out of the way corner for the third.

The non-fiction collection, which is as extensive as the fiction, has given me far more problems.  Broadly speaking , it can be divided into four sections: Shakespeare and his Contemporaries,  letters and journals, essays and poetry.   I’m still teaching Shakespeare studies and, as there are around twenty plays I have yet to cover, this collection is only going to go on growing. In fact, it’s been the expansion in this area that has prompted the need to cull in the first place.

The letters and journals and essays are all either literary or theatrical in subject matter and while I have read most of them they are the sort of book that I repeatedly dip into for intellectual and spiritual refreshment.  On very sober reflection I decided that there were in fact three writers who had begun to irritate rather than invigorate.  Fortunately, they were amongst the more prolific and so I was able to consign well over a dozen volumes into the rapidly filling cardboard boxes.

The poetry was another matter.  I know that I don’t read enough poetry but when it came to trying to move any of it on it proved to be completely impossible.  It would have been like trying to excise music from my life.  I am still puzzling over this and meantime the poetry volumes remain firmly on their shelf.

All told, I think I have probably reduced my library by about a third and Shakespeare apart (Love’s Labour’s Lost is just making an appearance in various different editions) I have been reasonably good about what I’ve bought.  Only books that I’ve borrowed from the library and then found that I need to add to those shelves holding books I simply can’t part with have found their way in.  How long this state of affairs will persist is another matter entirely.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves ~ Karen Joy Fowler

51xeXD2W63LFor a number of reasons I resisted reading Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker short listed novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves when it was first published in 2013.  Like so many book club addicts I’d read and enjoyed The Jane Austen Book Club but not enough to send me scurrying off to discover whatever else she had written nor to ensure that any current work would automatically find its way on to my library list.  And, again like many others (all presumably people who hadn’t read the novel) I was surprised when this latest book made the Booker long list and astounded when it reached the short list. She simply hadn’t struck me as the sort of writer that would attract the judges of literary awards.

Well, more fool me!  And more fool anyone else who has been avoiding this novel for whatever reason, because having read it twice in quick succession I think it is a remarkable work and I will certainly be going back to explore Fowler’s previous books as well as adding her to the list of writers whose new releases I automatically read as soon as I possibly can.

So, what is it about this book that makes it stand out as one of the best books I’ve read so far this year?  Well, to begin with, it is incredibly readable.  Even when it is dealing with some intensely difficult subjects the pages seem to turn themselves.  Fowler knows how to tell a story that involves the reader from the start, as well as being able to create characters you care about and empathise with.  However hard it may be to read on in some sections, you simply have to in order to find out what happens to these individuals.  By the time you get to the difficult bits you are too engaged to duck out.

Then there is the humour.  Despite the fact that there is very little in the lives of the people we meet to laugh about, Fowler still keeps us chuckling and, at times, laughing out loud.  Some sections (and I’ll quote one later) are nothing short of joyous.

Finally, and this is where I suspect the Booker nomination came from, there are the subjects that she is addressing.  And from this point on I am going to assume that you have either read the book or know what it is about.  If you don’t, then be aware that there is a reveal around seventy pages in and I am not going to avoid talking about it.  In fact, when I came to read the book for the first time (two of my book groups had chosen it for the same month) I did know that one of the main characters was a chimpanzee.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know which one and consequently tried to read the first chapters thinking it was going to be revealed that it was Rosie.  Let me tell you, that was a problem!  As it happens Rosie, who is in her early twenties when we first meet her, is definitely human but has been brought up until the age of five with Fern, who is a chimpanzee and who lives with the family as if the two girls are sisters. But at the point, after an event that Rosie has wiped from her memory, Fern vanishes and the whole structure of the family crumbles.

Inevitably, much of the book is about the animal rights issues of using primates in experimentation: something that was not uncommon in the latter part of the last century.  I’m not going to explore those here, because I am sure that when the book came out there were blogs and articles aplenty on the topic.  However, there are two other areas that I felt Fowler was addressing that I would like to mention because I think they are important to her but have been rather overlooked in discussion.

Firstly, this is an intensely feminist novel.  It celebrates the sisterhood that is possible among the most profoundly different individuals, while at the same time refusing to shy away from the fact that in many societies (including that of the chimpanzee) even the highest ranked females are seen as being beneath the lowest ranked males.  Keeping those females subdued by sexual means is common.  In one chimpanzee colony, we are told, a female was observed being raped 170 times in a three day period.  However, as Rosie’s university professor remarks

most religions [are] obsessed with policing female sexual behaviour, …for many it [is] their entire raison d’être…  “The only difference ,” he said, “is that no chimp has ever claimed that he was following God’s orders.

At the book’s conclusion it is a sisterhood of Rosie, her mother, Fern and Fern’s daughter, Hazel that somehow manages to re-establish a tentative relationship despite all the damage that has been done to them throughout the years since Fern’s removal from the family.  They don’t succeed in rebuilding the joyous companionship of those early years but for Rosie at least, the memory lingers on.

MEMORY TWO:  one of the graduate students has gotten a free compilation tape from the local radio station and she throws it into the cassette player.  We are dancing together, all the girls – Mom and Grandma Donna, Fern and I, the grad students, Amy, Caroline, and Courtney. We are rocking it old-school to “Splish Splash I Was Taking a Bath,” “Palisades Park,” and “Love Potion No. 9″

I didn’t know if it was day or night.  I started kissing everything in sight.

Fern is smacking her feet down, loud as she can, jumping sometimes onto the backs of the chairs and then landing on the floor.  She makes Amy swing her, and laughs the whole time she is in the air.  I am shaking it, popping it, laying it down and working it out.  “Conga line,” Mom calls.  She snakes us through the downstairs, Fern and I dancing, dancing, dancing behind her.

I am so jealous of that memory.  I would have given anything to have been there and have the right to share it.

However, what interested me most was the way in which the book explores the nature of story, the morals it is used to teach, the way in which the author, the narrator and the reader interact with each other and what happens when it is you who are telling your story to yourself through an act of memory.

Once upon a time, there was a family with two daughters, and a mother and father who’d promised to love them both exactly the same.

The story of Rosie and Fern seems to have had the archetypal beginning.  But, as Rosie realises, when applied to real life, fairy tales run out of road.  It may be all well and good to fantasise about a situation in which one sister (the older) speaks in toads and snakes and the other (the younger) in flowers and jewels, but when the elder sister’s subsequent banishment actually happens there are consequences that cannot be imagined away.  The rest of the family don’t live happily ever after, they live in the knowledge of what they have done.

Or do they?  Because of the way in which she structures the story Fowler is able to play around with the reader’s perceptions.  If you don’t know what is coming then you are likely to interpret what happens to Rosie in the book’s opening chapters very differently from the way you react when you know her past history.  As Rosie remarks, by starting the story in the middle she deprives readers of information that would help them build up a true picture of the situation.  But what becomes apparent is that Rosie is also depriving herself of necessary information because the stories that she tells are almost certainly incomplete.

the happening and the telling are very different things.  This doesn’t mean that the story isn’t true, only that I honestly don’t know anymore if I really remember it or only remember how to tell it.

Rosie has blocked memories of certain incidents because dealing with the implications of what really happened would be too painful.  And, even when she forces herself to bring those memories to the fore she still can never be certain that they are true.

Sometimes in matters of great emotion, one representation, retaining all the original intensity, comes to replace another, which is then discarded and forgotten.  The new representation is called a screen memory.  A screen memory is a compromise between remembering something painful and defending yourself against that very remembering.

Perhaps the story that Rosie eventually remembers and tells us is the truth of what happened.  Perhaps it is a screen memory.  Neither she nor we will ever know the truth of the matter.  What we do know are the consequences, consequences that no one, not Rosie, her family or the reader, will never be able to walk away from.  What each one of us has encountered in the course of this story we will have to live with for the rest of our lives.

And The Winner Is………


Well, all the votes are in and the group of books chosen for this year’s Summer School is ……

Musical Interlude

The Travelling Hornplayer ~ Barbara Trapido

Bel Canto ~ Ann Patchett

An Equal Music ~ Vikram Seth

This wasn’t actually my first choice but it was high on my list and I am really looking forward to having a water tight reason for re-reading three books that I very much enjoyed the first time round and am fairly sure that I will be able to get more out of on a second reading.  For once, I don’t have to lead any of the meetings as I have had enough volunteers to introduce the books to be able to sit back and let other people get on with it, which will be a nice change.

The runner up was the group of books set in Edinburgh and I’ve had requests to put that on next year’s list as well, but the Science Fiction group, Brave New Worlds, wasn’t popular at all.  That’s a shame as I would really have enjoyed discussing those novels and I suspect so would the other members of the School if they hadn’t been frightened by the idea of the genre.  I may try and feed at least two of them into other groups next year, if I can think of something appropriate.

We are meeting rather earlier this year than usual, the second week in August.  So come that week I shall probably be absent from the ether, but I will report back on all the discussions later in the month.  Now I have to go and see if I kept any of the books I need when I was having my great cull.  What do you bet that they all went to the charity shop?

Only Connect ~ Banning Alice

3afef1e893f675f1dd6af0348c666c70One of my local Oxfam Bookshops has started to host a fortnightly session with a local author.  Last week it was Gaynor Arnold whose first novel, Girl in a Blue Dress, was nominated for both the Booker and the Orange prizes.  However, the book she chose to talk about last Wednesday was the more recent After Such Kindness which I reviewed here. As you may know, this novel is centred around the relationship between Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell, although the names are changed and Arnold is actually exploring considerably more than simply that one friendship.  After she had talked about the book and read various extracts the conversation opened up and the first topic raised was whether or not, in the light of Dodgson’s reputation, we should be giving copies of Alice in Wonderland to today’s children.

Yes, it took my breath as well – at least it did until I realised that this is only the same conversation that we were having some days back about whether we should allow what we know about modern authors to colour our response to current works.  The general tenor of that discussion seemed to be that while in general people felt that we shouldn’t be swayed by personality there were times when we just couldn’t help it.  Should Lewis Carroll be one of those occasions?

Well, the thought of denying anyone the delights of the world of Wonderland or the realm on the other side of the Looking Glass distresses me no end, especially as there is nothing in the books which reflects any of the anxieties that have been voiced about Dodgson’s behaviour where small girls were concerned.  But the woman who raised the question clearly thought otherwise.  Perhaps there was something in her own background that prompted her response; I have no way of knowing.

As we chewed this over we found ourselves considering several factors.  First, of course, there is the temporal distance.  Dodgson is not a modern author who can be thought of as attempting to sway current opinion in favour of any views he might or might not have held. We are not going to see him popping up on our televisions to advocate photographing young girls in suggestive poses.

That temporal distance is also relevant when we think of changing attitudes towards women in general.  As I said when I reviewed After Such Kindness, Arnold is not primarily interested in the Dodgson/Liddell relationship but rather she is looking at it in the light of

all the other men who see Daisy as simply a puppet put on this earth that they might further their own desires through her regardless of the damage that she thereby suffers. This is true of her father, of her husband and eventually even of the eminent doctor who is supposed to be helping her.

Dodgson’s actions pale into insignificance when compared with some of the other mistreatment that Daisy, the Alice character, suffers at the hands of men who should be far more concerned about her welfare.  While attitudes towards women still have some way to go I hope we have moved on a distance compared with our Victorian forebears.

One other very interesting response, however, was whether this was a relevant issue, given that the Alice books don’t really appeal to children.  Rather they are among those children’s classics that now-a-days we only come to appreciate fully as adults, when we are more capable of recognising the sophisticated linguistic humour with which they are charged.  I know this was true for me where Winnie-the-Pooh was concerned and I have a suspicion that the same applied to Alice.

Now, I don’t have children to be able to say if this would be the case today but I do know that Alice was not a book I ever chose to read to any of the classes I taught.  However, having said that, I don’t remember ever reading any of the classics to children.  I was always busy introducing them to modern authors in the hope that having enjoyed one of their books the children would then go out and look for others as those writers continued in their careers.  So, I wonder what your memories are in relation to this.  And, if you do have young children in your sphere at present what are their reactions to Alice?  Is it a book they read with pleasure or do they put it to one side because its real worth pass them by?

No Other Darkness ~ Sarah Hilary

9781472207722Last year I reviewed the first novel by Sarah Hilary, Someone Else’s Skin and said at the time that I would

look forward to the second in the series, especially if a growing awareness on the part of the reader of the characters and their history means that [their] back stories can take rather more of a back seat.

Well, now we have Hilary’s second novel concerning DI Marnie Rome and her Sergeant, Noah Jake, No Other Darkness and although my concerns have not been completely addressed at least in this instance the traumas that lie in Rome’s background have been more subtly associated with the central plot and as a result don’t seem to take over the narrative in quite such an intrusive manner.

No Other Darkness, like its predecessor, addresses a question that should be of greater social concern than it is.  In Someone Else’s Skin it was the issue of domestic violence, in this second novel it is the damage that can be done, not only to the sufferer but to the entire family, by post-partum psychosis, a more extreme version of post-natal depression which results in

hallucinations, paranoia, voices enticing [the sufferer] to murder, telling them that their baby is evil, or else it’s the new messiah and everyone around it wants to harm it. Sometimes they believe the baby has supernatural healing powers and can survive anything.

The bodies of two small boys have been found in a bunker beneath a garden on a new housing estate. Forensic evidence suggests that they have been there for four or five years and yet there is nothing in the records to tie them to any missing persons case.  Until DI Rome’s team can identify the bodies they are at a loss as to how to proceed.

To facilitate the investigation the family to whom the house belongs has been moved out into temporary accommodation.  They have understandably been unsettled by the discovery but it seems that they are more troubled by the change of residence than the situation warrants.  Their fourteen year old foster son, Clancy, has always been disturbed but now the whole family seem on edge and when the teenager disappears along with Carmen and Tommy, the two younger children, the police have to question whether or not history is about to repeat itself in more ways than one.  Have the children been abducted by the same person who was responsible for the earlier deaths or is Clancy, who is the same age as, and from a similar background to, the teenager who killed DI Rome’s parents, set on taking revenge against a world be feels has deserted him by murdering his foster siblings?

As in the first novel, the solution, when all is resolved, is unexpected and it would seem that it is because it doesn’t fit with the norms as perceived by society that Hilary has explored this subject.  She appears to be particularly interested in those damaged people who slip through society’s net because their profiles differ from what we have been taught to expect.  There is little enough support for those who are most easily spotted.  Those whose suffering goes unnoticed until they are pushed over the edge are the individuals this author is concerned about.  It is an approach that sets Hilary apart from other new crime writers and marks her out as someone to watch in the future.

Only Connect ~ The Hard Problem

Something that has always given me great pleasure is the light bulb moment that comes about when one piece of art connects with another.  As Forster suggests in Howard’s End, it is like sliding into place the capstone of an arch: the key stone that not only manages to bridge the gap between two monumental marble pillars but also makes each one of them stronger than they were when they stood on their own.  Last Sunday, therefore, was a day of great illumination because a friend and I went to a screening of Tom Stoppard’s latest drama, The Hard Problem, which proved not only to be a magnificent play in its own right but also got me thinking in new ways about aspects of two other works that I have been engaged with.

The play is about a young psychology student, Hilary, whom we first meet when she is in the process of applying for a post at a brainscience institute where they are researching ‘the hard problem': where do psychology and biology meet and, if there truly is nothing but matter, then what is consciousness?  Faced with fellow researchers who are busy mapping the brain and explaining how it works through the expediency of the computer program, Hilary and her boss, Leo, struggle to maintain a line of investigation that affirms the existence of something ‘other’ in the human psyche, something which cannot be explained simply through a process of ever more intricate dissection.

During the course of the play one of Hilary’s PhD students comes to her with an experiment which appears to show that there is a core of altruistic human kindness present in young children that is gradually whittled away by contact with a more self-seeking and egotistical world.  The resulting paper is published to much acclaim only for the student to then admit that she had removed the results of eight children from the final data because they were outliers: in other words, their results didn’t fit the nice neat pattern that she was hoping to present.  The work was fundamentally flawed.

I can’t even begin to tell you how my heart sank at that moment.  If you have at any point worked in a research situation you will understand just what an unforgivable crime this is.  If, as an academic community, we cannot trust each other’s integrity then we have nothing.  Inevitably both Hilary, who has verified the results, and the student have to go.  And, in one of those light bulb moments I recognised a link between the action of the play and a situation that is raised in the book I was then reading, Sissel-Jo Gazan’s latest novel, The Arc of the Swallow.

You may not have come across Gazan, a young Danish writer who has published one previous work, The Dinosaur Feather.  She is a biology graduate from the University of Copenhagen but has turned her hand to crime fiction in which her main protagonists are involved in the world of science.  If you enjoy really intelligent crime writing which demands that you keep up with a good deal of scientific information then she is worth looking out for.

In The Arc of the Swallow a young researcher, Marie, is accused of having committed the same sort of scientific dishonesty as Stoppard explores, in her case concerning findings to do with the side effects of certain childhood vaccinations.  In this instance we know pretty much from the start that it isn’t Marie who has been massaging the data but rather scientists in the pay of those drug companies who cannot afford to have their, quite literally, fatal shortcomings exposed.  In some ways the situation, or at least the motivation is reversed.  The drug companies are spurred on by greed, whereas Stoppard’s student is driven by a desired to please her tutor.  And, in fiction, Gazan’s plot is the more common.  The bad guy at the top is shown to have been the one who cannot be trusted and we can all cheer along with feelings of righteousness when the little guy is vindicated.  What Stoppard shows us is that in the end it doesn’t matter whether it is the bad or the good guy who turns the figures on their head.  The results are false and if we cannot trust the integrity of the researcher we are lost.

Or are we?  In respect of another aspect of her life Hilary feels that she needs a miracle, and she is prepared to pray for one.  When that miracle come about she decides that the loss of her job and the prestige that goes with it has been but a small price to pay.

In fact, my friend and I disagreed as to whether or not Hilary was actually a believer.  My friend thought she was, whereas I thought her prayers were more akin to those promises that many of us make to an unseen, unknown deity in times of crisis.  I didn’t see any other signs of belief portrayed in the character.  However, the very fact of raising the question of God brought about another of those lightbulb moments.  If the play does ask us to accept the possibility of a God then it is in respect of the outside factor that influences our lives and thus makes it impossible for the biologists ever to completely account for the way in which our minds work.  But, at the moment I am teaching Richard III and we have been having some very interesting discussions about the role of religion in the play, especially as it relates to the way in which the original Elizabethan audiences would have understood it.  One line in particular came up for debate.  When Richard says I am determined to be a villain does he mean that he has made his mind up to be a villain (which is the way most modern audiences are likely to interpret it) or does he mean given the deformities he has burdened me with God has predetermined me to be a villain?  The notion of predetermination was certainly current among some believers at the time as was the idea that a deformed body was the outward symbol of a deformed mind.  However, if God does predetermine the ultimate destination of a human soul then doesn’t this, in fact, make him the supreme computer programmer?  And if that is the case how does it factor into the discussion that Stoppard is initiating.

Don’t you just love it when one piece of art makes you question another in this way?

Only Connect

‘Banned’ Authors

06d11e3a0263b62966ea48fc5e990cc3Earlier this week I was at a book group meeting where we seemed to be in pretty much unanimous agreement that the book we were reading (and don’t ask, because I’m not going to tell you) was superb.  The style was magnificent, the humour wry, but never overplayed, the characters well drawn and sympathetic and the themes to do with the importance of kindness in small ways to the general well being of a community.  It seemed as if we all felt better for having spent time in the world of the novel and in the company of the woman who wrote it.  At least that appeared to be the case until the one member of the group who so far had said nothing quietly commented that while she could appreciate the points we were making she knew the author to be a nasty piece of work who was the antithesis of everything she was endorsing in the novel and that this had completely ruined the reading experience for her.

Now I should say that this response was not based on spurious information gleaned from social media or the gossip columns.  This group member’s personal circumstances are such that she is in a position to know the writer herself and to have had first hand experience of her behaviour.  She normally speaks very sympathetically of the authors with whom she comes into contact, and consequently this reaction was all the more pointed.  And, of course, it led us into a discussion of the extent to which we are influenced in our reaction to any work of art by the knowledge we have of the artist who created it.  The most frequently cited example, I suspect, would be Wagner and there were people in the group who said that they did actively avoid his music because of his political associations.  Personally, I also avoid his music but in my case this is because I don’t like it.  What my reaction would be if I was to really enjoy his work, I don’t know.

Coincidentally, I was browsing through some old copies of Slightly Foxed yesterday and came across an article by Francis King which began

Once met, I rarely dislike a person.  But the idea of a person often fills me with dislike and even abhorrence.  So it was with Wyndham Lewis…  A supporter of the British Union of Fascists and of Franco, he wrote a laudatory book about Hitler…[He] always ended up by sinking his poisonous fangs into the hand of anyone who had helped him…kept his put-upon wife in purdah from his friends and frequently betrayed her with other women… [His] intermittent paranoia persuaded him that even his intimates were plotting against him and doing him down.

In the light of the above, it is hardly surprising that when…a friend of mine…pressed Lewis’s ‘The Revenge of Love’ on me, I read it with growing annoyance.  At the close of Part I, I gave up on it.

The point of King’s article is that in later years he went back to Lewis’s work and was able to read it without allowing his dislike of what the man stood for and of his behaviour towards others to colour his appreciation of his writing. Given my friend’s age I suspect she is not going to undergo the same transformation.

Whether or not you should read an author’s work in the light of their biography is a topic that has been much discussed over the years in academic circles, but I don’t think my friend’s response should be considered in quite the same way as the issue which is debated in university seminars.  She wasn’t suggesting that this writer’s life history was colouring her writing but rather the opposite, that the author was hypocritically championing a way of behaving towards others which she, herself, did not demonstrate.  Given that she knew this to be the case, she simply couldn’t respond as the rest of us had to the novel.

I wonder how you feel about this?  Do you think you would react in the same way?  Do you think it is a valid reaction?  I have a later novel by this same author sitting on my shelf as I write.  Until I have begun to read it I am not going to know how much my new ‘insider’ information has affected my responses.