Will Someone Please Do My Ironing?

ImageThere are two things which never cease to amaze me about Summer School.  The first is that something which is so invigorating and energising while it is happening can leave me so completely exhausted once it is over.  I love the opportunity to get together with a group of friends to do nothing more than talk about books. (Well, we drink tea and eat a lot of biscuits as well, but the impulse to indulge in that sort of behaviour is built into the DNA of the printed word, isn’t it and so doesn’t count.) I never want to stop when our allotted time is up and fortunately neither does anyone else; we often overrun by nearly as much again.  But, once it is over, I find I need to spend the next twenty-four hours doing absolutely nothing just to recoup all the energy I have spent when I thought what I was doing was replenishing it.  I suspect that what I have been replenishing is the energy of the soul.  Unfortunately, what I need right now is the energy to tackle the mountain of ironing which this morning seems to be even higher than the dreaded tbr mountain.  So, if there is anyone offering out there, you are more than welcome to call round!

The second thing, and it’s one which happens every year, is the way in which the books chosen purely on the strength of having loosely connected themes suddenly start to talk to each other in ways that we might never have expected.  By the end of the week we are talking as much about the books that have gone before as we are about the last book on the list and this year branching out into what the novels have to say about current events as well. I am going to put up posts about each of the titles and reflect a little on the nature of the discussion that went on but I thought today that I would just give you a hint of the type of topics that we found ourselves talking about.

The three books we read, under the overall heading of Breaking New Ground, were Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway and Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant.  Of course, we talked about the individual themes of each of the novels and the merits of the books as literature, but there were also specific themes that kept cropping up.

For example, we repeatedly found ourselves discussing the way in which how we see a situation colours our experience of it and how we see an individual dictates our relationship to them.  Coupled with this was the question of how we actually look.  So, if we don’t look carefully enough at something, if we see it only partially, or out of focus, then we are going to misinterpret what we see and find ourselves in trouble because we have misjudged our position.

Another theme that was common across all three titles was that of the conflict between the rule and an individual’s conscience.  Sometimes this surfaced as one of the character’s having to decide whether or not to obey orders laid down by a secular institution he or she was beginning to question. Sometimes it was the more personal dilemma of whether or not to remain true to the religious principles that had previously been the backbone of your existence.

The immigrant experience is, of course, common to all three novels, but a question we perhaps hadn’t expected ourselves to be discussing was brought up in two of the books; namely what happens when one group of immigrants is made to feel unwelcome, especially when we are talking about people who are fourth or fifth generation.  Trying to pretend that the ‘go back where you came from’ lobby isn’t every bit as vocal today as it was in the times when these books are set is to imitate the proverbial ostrich.  As is trying to duck the question of the use of extreme violence to convince your enemies to capitulate.  Discussing various scenes in The Lieutenant two days after the news of James Foley’s beheading wasn’t easy.

So, all in all, a very thought provoking week and one that I hope to give you a flavour of over the next few posts.  I hope you will feel able to comment on them and that by doing so we can widen the participation of the Summer School and extend the discussion even further.

30 thoughts on “Will Someone Please Do My Ironing?

    1. It was, Ali and I’ve enjoyed writing the posts about it because they have given me a chance to think again about some of the issues we visited.

  1. Dear Alex, Not having read any of the books you mention (though I have heard lots of good things about Tracy Chevalier, and have read “Girl With the Pearl Earring”), I can’t comment on that part of your post. But on the incidental part, I can tell you that it’s not even necessary for YOU to do ironing of some items. There’s a trick to getting clothes wrinkle-free after they’re dry. If you’ve already put them through the dryer once and they’re still wrinkled, what you do is to take a clean washcloth or two, of the terrycloth kind made from towelling material, wet it or them thoroughly, throw them back in the dryer with the wrinkled clothes you want to wear, and lo and behold! in 20 minutes or so the clothes (depending always on the material they’re made from) come out free of wrinkles. Of course it’s not absolutely foolproof, and occasionally some material or the other doesn’t cooperate, and you may think the process smacks of the old adage “Lazy people work the hardest,” i.e., in trying to avoid work. But the system is so widespread that now some company or other is making a little spongy ball that you can wet and put in the dryer which is supposed to do the same thing. The process saves me a lot of work each week.

      1. I envy you the possibility of having an outdoors big enough to dry clothes in–I live in a condo. Of course, they make what are called EnergyStar appliances now which use less electricity and etc., but sometimes you end up paying for them up front, in the cost of the appliance. They do have a long life, however, so if you can afford to invest in them, they make good sense. I thought Chevalier’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” was like the painting itself, a beautiful “still life with human figure” you could call it. The extent to which the girl was self-aware or not ended up being what the book was about, for me. I really enjoyed it, but I haven’t had a chance to read any of Chevalier’s other books. The girl in the painting was, after all, in the position of having to do for others (maybe she even dried clothes!) and work has the concommittant mental time to figure things out, if you think while you’re working. Or was she a kitchen worker? I can’t recall now exactly what her servitor status in the household was. But it’s another one of those paintings like the Mona Lisa, about which everyone speculates what her expression meant. I loved it.

    1. Unfortunately there isn’t room in my kitchen for a dryer so I have to deal with them as they come out of the spinner. That is great if you catch them immediately after as they are damp enough to iron easily. This pile definitely no longer comes into that category.

      1. I know what you mean about lack of room–here in the condo, the mini-washer and dryer are side-by-side in an alcove in one of the bathrooms. I didn’t use to mind ironing that much, and even had a nice, tall ironing board that I could haul out from a closet, but back in 2003 we had a flood which came into the basement storage, and we had to clean out our locked areas. I had put my ironing board there on pipes at the top where I could easily get it out, and someone stole it while the basement was in disarray, so since it was a fairly expensive model, I just never replaced it. Now on the rare occasions when I do have to iron, I have to put down a dry towel on a table top and iron on it. As you might imagine, that’s no good for sleeves and tricky areas of the ironing bits. But I didn’t mean to hijack your discussion of summer school and make it all about the mechanics of daily life. I hope you will be reviewing the books you read soon, as all three of them sound like interesting things I would like to read. I always get a lot from your discussions, even when I don’t have a comment.

        1. No apologies necessary, SO. One of the great pleasures of being part of the blogging world is seeing where the comments will take you.

  2. I’m looking forward too to your thoughts. And I sympathise totally about the ironing! I used to enjoy doing it, getting all the creases smoothed out used to be satisfying, but not any more, It’s a complete chore and takes up too much time, so I’m not volunteering.

    1. I don’t mind if there’s something worth listening to on the radio, Margaret. Unfortunately, this pile would need a dramatisation of the entire out put of Dickens!

  3. A great choice of books! We read the Penney at book group some time ago, and the other two are on my TBR list. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on them.

    1. Karen, how lovely to have you back in the blogging world. It has quite made my day! ‘The Last Runaway’ is not of the quality of the other two, but nevertheless an interesting read. ‘The Lieutenant’, however, is one of my favourite books and definitely ought to go to the top of your list immediately 🙂

  4. Some (slight) wrinkles are attractive. Shirts only need ironing where it shows. Smoothing wet clothes and hanging on hangers can help avoid a lot of creasing. On the other hand a freshly ironed item is a joy. I pay someone to do it now I’m aged, have less energy and can afford it. My children avoid/ignore this chore!
    I used to teach literary stuff in workshops, loved loved it and as you say easily over ran the time BUT BUT I wouldn’t have the energy to tidy my papers away afterwards. They had to be bundled into a pile eventually (after an hour or so) until I could summon the oomph to deal with them properly (essential)
    Tracey Chevalier’s very successful Girl With A Pearl Earring unfortunately led to her using a similar ‘formula’ for all her subsequent work, disappointingly to me, and including this latest despite the subject being fascinating. Always worth reading though.

    1. Chevalier is very much a hit or miss author where I’m concerned, Carol. Until ‘Remarkable Creatures’ I didn’t think she had written anything to touch ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and some of the books were simply bad. ‘The Last Runaway’ was certainly the weakest of the novels that we read, but it had enough in it that linked through to the other two to make it work as part of the week and however bluntly it did raise some interesting questions of its own.

    1. It was Rohan, although it would have been even better had you been there. What a shame there was no appropriate conference in Birmingham that you could have tagged onto the end of a visit. 🙂

  5. I’m of the hardly ever do any ironing school, though I enjoy it when I do it. But that would not be when I am exhausted. I hope you loved The Tenderness of Wolves, one of my favourites since it first appeared. If you haven’t read Gil Adamson’s The Outlander, that makes a fascinating comparison. Interesting discussion here!

    1. I do love ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’, Harriet and so did the rest of the group. Have you read her second novel,’The Invisible Ones’? It’s not as good as the first but still very interesting. I haven’t heard of the Adamson, but will go and check it out now.

  6. I suspect that for those who didn’t have to do so much organising, it would have been totally invigorating.

    I am thinking in terms of just choosing and presenting on the book for on evening’s book group was enough stress for me, even though it was an interesting discussion. But it is more energising when someone else is choosing.

    1. When the discussion really takes off, Denise, the thrill is wonderful. The feeling that you have chosen books that can provoke serious debate and which everyone has enjoyed is something very special.

  7. Alex, I would dearly love to be in your Summer School. Organizing such discussions take lots of work: no wonder you’re tired. I seldom iron, but here’s a tip I got from The Village Voice years ago, and it works. Just spray your wrinkled clothes with water in a spray bottle and the wrinkles disappear! It’s saved me hours of ironing.

    1. I’m glad that your Summer school was a success. I have not read any of the novels you mention but look forward to the posts to come to find out more about them.

  8. It sounds like Summer School was another great success this year! I look forward to more posts on it. As for the ironing, I long ago decided to live with wrinkles and only turn on the iron if the item is stupendously wrinkly or it is a special occasion. Amazingly, I hardly ever have to iron anything 🙂

  9. Sorry no takers hear for the ironing mountain, I am thinking if mine gets any higher I might need some crampons and a rope to tackle it. I’ve just been reading a book about the immigrant experience ( from China to USA) so will be very interested. To read your further thoughts on this. I’m with you re Chevalier, loved Pearl Earring but haven’t found any of her later work to come close to it.

    1. I’ve just finished it, Karen and so am definitely feeling like shining my halo. Are you still on holiday? If so, I hope you’re having a great time.

  10. This has been such a lovely conversation, well done you for inspiring it!
    Tracey Chevalier’s first novel Virgin Blue that few seem to know about I truly loved. That was a very time long ago though..

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