This was the first book I started in the new year and I am delighted to have read it in January, the deep British midwinter, when the light is scarce but the days pass by at what seems like a snail’s, or at least a hibernating creature’s pace. That seems about right to me – I can’t really understand the wave of bloggers and columnists who are currently bemoaning the slow passage of January; I don’t really want my life to flash by me! Whilst Winter is a complex and multi-layered novel, it does seem to me to be one of the dominant themes, that is, our tendency to be propelled ever faster (I’m deliberately avoiding the term ‘forward’) on to the next thing. This might mean that we fail to notice what is in front of us, the life we have and are in right now, and we are in grave danger of losing something precious as a result.
In the same way that the first part of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, the Man Booker-nominated Autumn, was a highly political book, written in 2016 and described as the first post-Brexit British novel, so the ‘winter’ of this book refers to the perilous times in which we find ourselves. For many of us, these are indeed dark times where the alienation of anything ‘other’ seems to be a movement gaining traction. Bernardine Evaristo explored similar themes in her Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other.
In Winter, Ali Smith examines the ideas through the dynamics of a family thrown unwillingly together at Christmas. Sophia lives alone in a large house in Cornwall. She was a successful businesswoman but, now late in life, finds herself alone, estranged from her sister, not knowing what is going on in the life of her only son in London, and navigating with despair some of the dehumanising aspects of modern life. When we meet her at the start of the book, she is communicating with what I can only describe as a hallucination of a child’s head, which floats about with her. To the reader, this seems surreal at first, but it gradually becomes merely a manifestation of Sophia’s mental state – her deep loneliness and her disconnection from normal life and society. Arthur, Sophia’s son will have similar hallucinations later in the book. Sophia goes about her Christmas Eve business in the town with sadness, recalling the once vibrant high street that is now a series of boarded-up shops, frustrated at being unable to withdraw money from her own bank account and the inability of the young man in the bank to appreciate or meet her needs as a customer – she has nostalgia for the days of the friendly bank manager.
Arthur, Sophia’s son, living in London, seems to have a similarly depressing existence. He works as a researcher for a legal firm, but has very little human contact with anyone there as all his work is done remotely. He also writes a blog, ‘Art in Nature’, but this has been sabotaged by his estranged girlfriend, Charlotte, who has also stolen his laptop, forcing him to work out of the local library, where he has to negotiate queues of others wanting to use the computers there. Arthur, or Art, is due to be spending Christmas in Cornwall with Charlotte and his mother, but Charlotte has now left him, and, unwilling to reveal this to his mother, he pays a young woman, Lux, whom he meets at a bus stop, £1000 if she will go to Cornwall with him and pretend to be Charlotte.
The third member of Sophia’s family to join the party is Iris, Sophia’s estranged sister. Whilst they were close growing up, they grew apart as Iris became more of an activist, involving herself at Greenham Common, living in squatting communities with artists and outsiders, going to Greece to help with the refugee crisis, all of which straight-laced and ‘proper’ Sophia despised.
Lux, the heavily pierced, highly educated non-British outsider, takes on the role of objective observer, reflector, and questioner, and becomes the catalyst for what is initially, a breaking down of the fragile family relations, which then makes way for a greater empathy, between siblings and between generations, and an opening up of previously taboo conversations. In Lux, we see how the outsider is in fact the one with the under-valued talents, with the insights which help everyone to drop their guard and open their hearts, and with the intelligence and knowledge which enables them to understand their own cultural inheritance.
There are times when I found this book challenging and disjointed – Sophia’s floating child’s head at the beginning was puzzling – but the more I read the more absorbed I became in its complex layering of themes and ideas. For one reason and another I read it quite slowly over a couple of weeks, but that was exactly the right pace because the sensation was completely in line with the long slow stretch of winter. I am looking forward to reading part three of the seasonal quartet Spring, which was published last year, and to the publication of the final novel in the series, Summer, due in July.
This is a challenging book but one which I recommend highly.
What sort of books do you like to read at this time of the year?
If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.
It’s been a busy summer holiday in my household; we’ve been doing a lot of travelling, both individually and together, visiting family and friends, as well as taking our own family holiday in Jersey (more of that in a moment), and getting my eldest prepared to start his new life as a university student later this month. The weather has taken a distinctly autumnal turn this week here in north west England, and with the children back at school it’s a definite reminder of the change of season.
With all the “excitement” in the British Parliament this week it was nearly possible to miss the announcement of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist and goodness what a list! As well as the serious literary heavyweights (arguably celebrities) Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, you have a literally heavyweight book! – Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport must surely be one of the longest shortlisted books ever at over 1,000 pages. With other entries from Bernardine Evaristo, Nigeria’s Chigozie Obioma and Turkey’s Elif Shafak it is one of the most exciting shortlists I have seen in years.
As usual I will set out to read all the books on the shortlist, and will post about that in due course, but I don’t think I have any hope of getting all six read by 14 October, when the winner will be announced.
We booked our family holiday very late this year and ended up taking a last minute trip to Jersey in the Channel Islands. It is a location that has never before crossed my radar – we just needed an easy, low-key week together that did not involve too much preparation or travel hassle (it’s less than an hour’s flight from the UK. You can also go by boat but this would have been much longer for us.) We had a truly wonderful time. It’s not a particularly diverse place, but it’s extremely friendly and welcoming. The beaches are beautiful and the rural interior is charming. It’s small so very easy to get around – we cycled or walked everywhere (slightly offsetting our guilt about flying) or made use of the extensive and great value bus network. The weather was sunny and warm, without being too hot (for us pale rain-soaked Brits!) And, historically, it’s a fascinating place. It was the only part of the British Isles to be occupied during World War Two and the story of the Occupation is told in fascinating detail at the Jersey War Tunnels Museum – brilliantly done. You can see that the events of over 70 years ago have left an indelible mark on the islanders’ consciousness.
We came back from Jersey relaxed and happy and grateful for the time we had together as a family. It’s a destination I recommend highly.
Facebook reading challenge
I’m thoroughly enjoying my Facebook Reading Challenge this year and getting some lovely comments from fellow participants – so glad you are enjoying the books. I think we’ve only had one dud so far this year? Whilst in Jersey we visited the island’s famous zoo, formally known as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Founded by author and naturalist Gerald Durrell 60 years ago in 1959 it is a wonderful, open green space with a relatively small but fascinating collection of creatures, that campaigns for “a wilder, healthier, more colourful world”.
Our visit inspired my choice for September’s reading challenge, the theme being a memoir – I have of course chosen Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. I read this book many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed the television series The Durrells, so I’m looking forward to reading it again. The first incarnation of this blog was in fact called My family and other books in honour of the man himself and his work (I changed the name as it felt a bit unwieldy after a while). So, if you would like to join us for this month’s challenge and read along, hop over to the Facebook group and leave your comments.
I’ll back on book reviewing duty in the coming weeks. It’s great to be back!
What have you been up to this summer?
If you have enjoyed this post, why not follow my blog, and let’s connect on social media.
Yesterday marked the 2018 Autumn equinox. This is the time of the year, exactly halfway between the summer and winter solstices, when there are an equal amount of hours of dark and light in the day. It is a time of year I find particularly energising.
I am fortunate to live in an area where we have more than our fair share of trees, of woodland and common land where I can walk, enjoy the fresh air and observe the changing of the seasons, truly one of the nicest things about living in northern Europe. The leaves seem to have been falling around me for some time, but I think the extremely dry weather over the summer caused this. Now, the leaves are visibly beginning to turn from green to various shades of red, yellow and brown and the scenery around me is taking on new vivid hues. In a couple of weeks it will be stunning.
As I write this, it is unbelievably warm outside, but it’s a different kind of warmth from summer. In the summer, when it was 18 degrees, I might be wearing a summer dress and I’d have to put on a cardigan. Today, I’m wearing my jeans and a long-sleeved top and it feels like a treat to be able to go out without a jacket – it’s all about context and expectation!
At this point in the year I feel motivated and eager. I am really focused on finishing the second draft of my book by half term at the end of October, I have some exciting new plans for a new website on children’s books, I’m fitter than I’ve been for years and after nearly three years of domestic disruption, we are on the final stage of our house renovation. There is lots of stuff happening that is good.
So, make the most of these mild days and longer evenings. Enjoy the movements of our wonderful earth and embrace the seasons!
Do you find there are times of the year when you feel more positive and energised than others? If so, what do you do to tap into that?
If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog and to connect with me on social media.
This is a beautifully crafted novel. It is so clever on so many levels. I’m writing this having not long finished the book, which is difficult since it would probably be better to let it sit with me for a while. The blog plan must be stuck to, however, so here goes!
Ali Smith has said that she wrote this book very quickly in the aftermath of the EU referendum in the UK last year. As UK citizens will all understand by now, as we continue to reflect upon/reel over the events of Summer 2016, the outcome of that vote was about so much more than should Britain remain in or leave the European Union. That our social, cultural and political path in this country could be determined by a simple yes or no answer to that question now looks absurd. The election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency in November last year was another cataclysmic event, which provides the context to this novel. Ali Smith has, I believe, outside this book, nailed her political colours fairly firmly to the mast. (I’m not going to do that.) But what we are seeing now, I believe, is the response of artists and writers to the shock of last year’s events, and Autumn is for me, my first foray into a literary reflection.
We mustn’t forget it’s a novel, not a piece of journalism; the two main characters in our story are Daniel Gluck, a 101 year-old former refugee from Nazi Germany, and Elisabeth Demand, a 32 year-old lecturer. It is Autumn and Daniel is at the end of his life, lying, mostly asleep, in a care home, not far from Elisabeth’s childhood home. Daniel and Elisabeth developed a close and unusual friendship when Elisabeth was a child, living alone with her mother, who, although she never really either understood or fully trusted their neighbour, would leave her daughter in Daniel’s care when she had to go out.
Despite their age difference, Elisabeth found Daniel’s company stimulating and energising. His love of stories and story-telling, his artistic sensibility, his appreciation of nature, his philosophical mind and his enigmatic past, all served to enliven Elisabeth’s imaginative powers and develop her intellect. He was like an oasis in her otherwise culturally barren life.
Written in the context of Brexit and Trump, the novel is essentially about fracture and is rich in metaphor. There are barriers, fences and separation in the novel, symbolic of our increasing desire to shut out, or, as we seem to see it, to protect. Those who appear different or unconventional are excluded or feared, or simply denied existence. The artist Pauline Boty, the subject of Elisabeth’s PhD, serves as a metaphor for this; she was the only British female Pop Artist of 1960s, but has effectively been written out of art history. Elisabeth’s supervisor (representing authority) refuses to approve her subject proposal, saying that Boty is insufficiently significant, but Elisabeth goes ahead anyway (defiance of authority). In a nice symmetry, Elisabeth discovers later on that Daniel in fact had a connection with the artist.
There are wider concerns here other than Brexit, however. Arguably, Brexit is just one symptom of a wider cultural shift; the phenomenon of Trump is another. The boundary between truth and lies has become blurred, marketing and PR have taken over, such that we no longer know what is objective reality. You can see it in the following quotes:
“The power of the lie…always seductive to the powerless” (p114)
“Whoever makes up the story makes up the world.” (p119)
“Facts don’t work. Connect with people emotionally.” (p133)
These are frightening thoughts. And we should be worried.
Ali Smith also laments the attempt to homogenise culture and our experience of everyday life – from the bizarre bureaucracy of the post office queues and the ‘Check and Send’ service (hilarious!) to Elisabeth’s mother’s nostalgia for the comfort of prevailing weather patterns (“That was back in the years when we still had summers. When we still had seasons, not just the monoseason we have now.”)
Ali Smith presents us with much to be worried about, but she also offers us glimmers of hope: the very friendship between Daniel and Elisabeth shows that it is possible to bridge the generation gap that appears to have surfaced in the wake of the EU referendum. Also, the descriptions of Autumn itself which pop up regularly in the novel, are as fine as any in the English language, and show that if we pay attention, then we can still experience the beauty of the seasons, so long as we are vigilant in the fight against forces that may alter that (climate change maybe?):
“The days are unexpectedly mild. It doesn’t feel that far from summer, not really, if it weren’t for the underbite of the day, the lacy creep of the dark and the damp at its edges, the plants calm in the folding themselves away, the beads of the condensation on the webstrings hung between things.” (p177)
A very powerful novel, skilfully done in such a compact form. Highly recommended.
It was the Autumn Equinox yesterday, exactly halfway between the shortest and longest days, when the hours of daylight and the hours of night are the same. From now until Christmas, the nights will begin to draw in. It’s a while before you notice it fully, of course and I always find that as the leaves on the trees begin to turn and fall and the temperatures cool, I actually feel a burst of energy and an increased desire to get out for walks and enjoy nature. It’s as if I only realise what I have when it starts to go and then I want to make the most of it! Yes, that certainly sums up part of my personality!
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and getting, correction, KEEPING kids reading – don’t they all love to be read a story when they’re little?! When and why does that stop? I spent hours in libraries when my kids were little, but I struggle to keep my 11, 13 and 16 year old children into their books. I’m not going to moan about screens; they are as inevitable a part of young people’s lives as food and drink, and, frankly, now mine all have pretty independent lives, I quite like the reassurance their mobile phones give me.
If you are finding it hard to motivate your children to read you may find this little book helpful – Alison David’s Help Your Child Love Reading – which I’ve reviewed here and plugged many times, because it contains practical advice and will not chastise you for allowing them screen time.
I love the title and the cover photo – it’s not an instruction guide on how to make them do something against their will, but how to embrace one of the most joyful and stress-relieving habits there is. And with the shocking news this week about how many of our young girls experience depression, reading is a hobby that all of our children can benefit from. So as life for those of us in the northern hemisphere gradually returns to the indoors, there is no better time to revive a reading habit. As is my regular wont, I’ve picked out a few children’s books that have caught my eye recently.
Pax by Sarah Pennypacker (age group 8-12 years) was published last year, but seems to be getting a lot of publicity at the moment. It has a beautiful cover and is the story of a boy’s friendship with a fox. I’m really keen to read this one. Birthday Boy by David Baddiel (age group 9+) looks like being another smash hit in this genre for the comedian turned children’s author. Published earlier this month it considers the question, what if it was your birthday every day? Be careful what you wish for is the message! A Place Called Perfect (age group 8-12 years) by Helena Duggan concerns Violet and her family who move to the town of Perfect, where everyone has to wear glasses to stop them going blind and where nothing is quite (as perfect) as it seems.
Most primary school age children are fairly easy to manage and get reading; it’s those pesky teens who present the biggest challenge! I’ll give you some ideas for this age group next week.
Do you have any children’s books to recommend?
If you have enjoyed this post, please follow my blog for weekly thoughts and book reviews.
This is my 100th post and I feel it’s quite fitting that I should be writing on the very day that the Man Booker 2017 shortlist has been announced. Last year, I set myself the task of trying to read all six books on the shortlist before the prize winner was announced. I managed three and a half! This year, I’ve cleared the decks and am going for it again – all six books by 17 October…34 days.
If you haven’t seen the shortlist, here it is:
Autumn and Exit West have been on my ‘to-read’ list for a while. Autumn is a post-Brexit novel and is about the fissures that became apparent in UK society after that referendum, seen through the eyes of elderly Daniel and youthful Elisabeth. It may help with understanding this social turmoil. Exit West is also about social and political turmoil and its effect on the lives of ordinary people, lovers Nadia and Saeed, forced to flee their homeland when it is torn apart by civil war, and seek refuge in the West.
Veteran prizewinner Paul Auster’s latest novel, 4 3 2 1, has won praise for the deft handling of a complex storyline in which he explores four possible paths that an individual’s life could take. It’s the longest book on the list by some distance! Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is the first venture into fiction by a well-established writer and is a fictionalised account of the true story of Abraham Lincoln and the loss of his eleven year old son at the start of the American Civil War.
Finally, from two less well-known writers, to me anyway, A History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, which is about a fourteen year old girl living a sheltered life in rural Minnesota, with unusual parents, and her association with a new family that moves into the area, forcing her to confront some uncomfortable truths. And Elmet by Fiona Mozley, another first novel from a young British writer, is also about the effects of growing up in an unusual family and how that prepares people for a challenging world.
I haven’t read any of these (no head start for me this year then!), so I can’t judge the shortlist at the moment, but I am surprised by some of the omissions. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are everywhere at the moment and have been highly praised. It’s always surprising to see Zadie Smith left out of this kind of list, huge talent that she is. Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I reviewed here in June,is possibly the best book I have read this year and I’m astonished that it’s not shortlisted. That novel will be my benchmark for judging these.
Anyone care to join me in the shortlist challenge?
If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog and for us to connect on social media.
January is never a great time of year for me – I’m not good with the cold, dark days of winter so it’s pointless me making New Year’s resolutions. In contrast, Autumn is, for me, the perfect time of year to reflect and think about the future. As a mother of three school-age children, my life is, in any case, dominated by the term time calendar, and there is something about the feeling of newness (shoes, pencil cases, planners, etc), the fresh start and the enthusiasm (yes, really, even the kids are usually excited to get back) that screams hope. Outside it’s the time of year associated with decay, when the blooms in the garden are starting to fade, the leaves on the trees begin to turn brown and fall, and the nights are definitely drawing in. In a funny way, though, I find this reassuring. It makes me feel that everything is in the right place, the natural order of things is safely on track, and that is a comfort to me in this era of accelerated climate change.
So, September is my month of choice for resolutions. My reading challenge this month is to read a self-help book and after a bit of indecision I’ve decided on Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s actually been on my list of books to read for some time, but seems particularly appropriate now as my main resolution is to complete at least a third of the book I am writing by half term (and hopefully another third by Christmas). I’ve been tinkering with it for months, and made some good progress with Camp NaNoWriMo in July, but I feel really focused now and am keen to capitalise on my motivation.
Before the summer break I also read WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel and it caused me to reflect on the time and care I give to myself. I think it’s true to say that, as a mother, when you have young children you can often put yourself and your needs at the bottom of the priority list, well after the rest of the family. Ultimately, this often takes a great toll. Now that my children are older, (all at secondary school as of this week, my eldest now in sixth form), I find myself not so much with more time, but definitely with more mental space to tend to my own needs, pursue some of my own passions and award myself more respect. So, I am re-reading WE, slowly and deliberately, a little each day, and working through the exercises.
As a Mum I feel I have for years ricocheted between feelings of resentment at the extent of my ‘self-sacrifice’ and guilt at not doing or being enough! I hope that over the coming weeks the reading and the exercises will help to shift my mindset more towards contentment, resilience, and gratitude – the Holy Grail! I don’t find it particularly difficult to change my habits, get a better eating or fitness regime, etc, but mindset change is much harder. Wish me luck!
Are you one of those who prefer to make their resolutions in September rather than January?
If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog by clicking on the button below or to the right (depending on your device).