The art of re-reading – “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf

I’m not a big re-reader; I often feel overwhelmed by the amount of books that I still desire to read so the thought of going back to something I’ve already ticked off the list can feel like a waste of time! I still haven’t quite accepted that I probably don’t have enough years left in my life to get through all the books I will want to read (perhaps not even the books in my TBR pile!). The joy of reading, though, is not about who can read the most, who has the most impressive library or can quote most extensively from their bookish knowledge. It is about the individual and the solitary pleasure of getting lost in a story. And you can do that in the same book many times over, if it’s good enough and if you love it enough. Re-reading gives a pleasure all of its own.

To The Lighthouse imgI had that very experience recently with my book club when we decided to read To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Some of us had read it before (though years earlier) others had not read it at all. But even those of us who had read it before could not remember very much about it! I read it when I was studying for my English degree 30 years ago; I would probably have got through most of Virginia Woolf’s books in a very short space of time, because that was what my degree entailed – reading lots and lots of books very quickly! I always remembered that To The Lighthouse was my favourite, but I could not honestly have told you what happens in it, except that the journey to the eponymous lighthouse was about something desired more than something fulfilled.

Coming to it again, therefore, was a perfect pleasure and I am so glad we chose it. I read it of course, through totally different eyes. I was in my early twenties when I read it first and now I am…somewhat older! I am a mother of three children and so I saw aspects of the novel that I simply could not have understood fully before. By happy coincidence, the current lockdown gave me the opportunity to read it in three long sittings, which this book definitely deserves. I became totally absorbed in the life of the Ramsay household, the inner world of the characters thrown uneasily together in the Skye summer house and the quest for something unattainable.

The other difference was that when I read it all those years ago, I was the student and the reading would have been for a different purpose – to write an essay, spot the references or the autobiographical aspects. This time I read it just for itself.

Re-reading is definitely something I would like to do more of. One of the opportunities this period of lockdown offers is a suspension of all normal routines, time proceeds differently and I feel less boxed-in to my usual routines. I feel we have stepped off the treadmill. We will be desperate to get back on it soon enough, no doubt, especially as the economy teeters, but until then my next re-read is going to be Ulysses. I first read it on a lazy week’s holiday in Spain about twenty years ago (pre-children!) – I think it deserves my time again now!

Are you a re-reader or do you tend mainly to read new titles, like me?

 

Facebook Reading Challenge – March choice

Has another 1st of the month come and gone already? It certainly has! Meteorological spring has sprung, though I’m struggling to believe it here in my very damp corner of north west England. It must be time for a new book in my Facebook Reading Challenge 2020. Last month’s choice was a non-fiction title, and I chose Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, a short book for a short month (though we had Leap Day of course), but one which I read slowly and deliberately, such was the importance and impact of the subject matter. I’ll be posting my review of this very powerful little book next week, so look out for that.

This year, I am scanning the globe with my reading themes, conscious that my reading is generally quite western and written in English, so this month’s choice is “Something from Asia”. In truth, it’s hard to quite know what that means these days – must the author live in Asia? Should the book be first published in an Asian language? Asia is also pretty big and covers a vast range of cultures and languages, so it is, I admit, a massive generalisation. However, choices must be made.

Please Look After MotherI was tempted to go for Haruki Murakami – after reading Norwegian Wood a couple of years ago, I am really keen to discover more of his work – but that would be a but too easy. So, I have put a pin in the haystack also known as the internet and come up with Please Look After Mother by Korean author Kyung-Sook Shin. This book won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011.

Its central character is So-nyo, an ageing matriarch who has lived a life of nurturing and self-sacrifice, caring for her husband and children. She becomes separated from her husband on a train journey. So-nyo’s family undertake a desperate search for her and as they do so, they recall the influence she has had on them all. It is said to be about family, about mothering in particular, and about what it means to love.

This book has been an international bestseller, though I’m ashamed to say I had not heard of it, or its author.

Please feel free to join me on my reading challenge this month.

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Book review – “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin

I am a huge admirer of authors who can come up with clever, original, twisty plots. As a writer myself, this is, I feel, not one of my strengths, so I am in awe of those for whom it clearly is. Chloe Benjamin, in this novel at least, is definitely one of those authors. The following review contains one or two spoilers.

The Immortalists imgThe novel begins in 1969 with the four children of the Gold family – Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon – visiting a fortune-teller in her grimy downtown New York apartment, who is said to be able to predict the date of a person’s death. The mystic consults each child privately about their fate. Their reactions vary; Daniel, the second oldest, for example, says he thinks it is all rubbish. The younger children seem more vulnerable and more preoccupied, particularly Simon, who at this point is only seven years old, and who is told that he will die young.

The novel jumps forward ten years when the children’s father, Saul, dies. This leaves their needy mother, Gertie, distraught. It was expected that Simon would continue the family tailoring business, but this is very far from his intention. With the fortune teller’s prediction preying on his mind, he is easily persuaded by Klara to leave New York and make a new life for himself in San Francisco, where, free of family expectations, he can lead a more fulfilling life. Simon is gay, something Klara recognises clearly, but they both know that this truth would be devastating to their traditional Jewish mother. Simon could never follow in his father’s footsteps.

Simon not only moves to the other side of the country, but he breaks away from the family completely, much to the consternation of Daniel, who sees Simon’s behaviour as wilful and selfish. It also means that someone else will have to care for their mother, a role that Daniel expected Simon would take on. We watch with trepidation the hedonistic lifestyle that Simon leads. It is the early ‘80s and there is talk of a terrible new ‘gay disease’. Simon’s behaviour has a kind of death-wish about it.

Spoiler alert!

Simon dies – but that might not really be a spoiler, because you know it had to happen! Once Simon’s death becomes inevitable, the narrative of the book becomes clear. The author teases us by inviting us to consider whether Simon’s death was an accurate prediction by the fortune-teller, or whether being given a date of death drives us towards fulfilling that prediction. To what extent is our destiny within our control, and to what extent mapped out for us? Did Simon in fact escape one kind of destiny (the one his mother determined, life as a tailor in the family business) for another (dying from a horrible incurable disease)?

Next, we are told Klara’s story. Klara is the most bohemian and perhaps the most fragile of the four Gold children. She meets and falls in love with Raj. They have a daughter and after some lean years on the road, they eventually develop a highly successful magic act with a residency in Las Vegas. They call themselves The Immortalists, after their seemingly death-defying tricks. Success is a burden for Klara, however, and this, coupled with her unresolved grief over Simon’s death, leads her into a life of alcoholism. Klara is fascinated by the life story of her grandmother, also a travelling magician, and replicating some of her tricks becomes part of the magic act. Whilst trying to emulate a particularly dangerous one, she hangs herself in a hotel room – deliberately? Was she trying to cheat the prediction?

Daniel was the most sceptical of the children. He is convinced that Klara and Simon’s deaths were caused by the fortune teller’s predictions and, with the aid of a police officer who once met Klara, he hunts down the elderly fortune-teller hoping to bring her to justice. The hunt becomes an obsession for him. I won’t reveal the rest of Daniel’s story.

Finally, there is Varya, who was told by the fortune teller she would live to 88. She is working as a senior biologist conducting experiments into longevity using monkeys. Varya, like all her siblings, has some considerable mental health difficulties. She has severe anxiety and OCD, restricting her calorific intake to prolong her life (as she does with her monkey research subjects) and shunning meaningful human relationships – has Varya become dangerously obsessed with fulfilling the fortune-teller’s prediction? Her world is turned upside down when her favourite monkey becomes gravely ill in the experiment and Varya breaks with protocol in a way that threatens the costly research project, an act which damages her professionally. She also she meets a young journalist, who claims to be interested in her work but who is not in fact who he says he is. Varya’s ordered, controlled life unravels and she must face her demons, not just for her own sake, but on behalf of her troubled siblings too.

The story has a brilliant ending with Ruby (Klara’s daughter), and Gertie, the Gold children’s mother, coming together at the end. I listened to this on audiobook and was totally hooked. It’s a long but extremely satisfying book, so many threads, brilliantly woven together. Some reviewers have said it has too many clichés, others found aspects of the plot contrived, but I absolutely loved it.

Highly recommended.

If you have read The Immortalists I would be interested to know what you thought of it.

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Book review – “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker

I was very excited at the prospect of reading this book. For my sins, I have never read a Pat Barker, not even the Regeneration Trilogy, the third volume of which, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize in 1995. I knew about it, of course, and I think I bought it at some point (though I have moved so many times in my life that I cannot lay my hands on it now!) What I also knew about Pat Barker was that she was born and went to school in Stockton on Tees, a much-neglected part of the country, where I also lived for 12 years and where all my three children were born, and where I still have many friends. She was born to a young single mother but was brought up by her grandparents and lived a stereotypically working-class life until her academic ability set her apart and she was selected to attend grammar school. Barker started writing at a young age but her first novel was not published until she was forty. She is the same age as my mother, who died shortly before I started reading this book a few months ago. I love the ‘Pat Barker story’, feel a deep admiration for her (even though I had not hitherto read any of her books) and felt in some ways a connection with her; the working-class girl made good.

The Silence of the Girls imgThe Silence of the Girls has been critically-acclaimed and was shortlisted for last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I really, really wanted to love this book, but I’m afraid I didn’t. It could be that the timing was wrong – December for me was mad busy so I read the book in short bursts over a longish period when I was quite stressed. I don’t think I gave it the time and attention it deserved. But then, neither did it really grab me when perhaps it ought to have done.

The book is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad but from the perspective of some of the women involved, primarily that of Briseis, the wife of King Mynes of Lyrnessus, the Trojan city sacked by the Greeks, led by Achilles. As a reward to the victors, the women of the city are given out to them, essentially to live as their sexual slaves. Briseis is given to Achilles and narrates the story, although it is very much her internal reflection as she plays almost no verbal part in the proceedings she observes – the banquets, the post-battle analysis by Achilles and his fellow warriors, the political machinations, primarily between Achilles and Agamemnon, and the mental strife of Achilles – hence the concept of ‘silence’. Her perspective and her account veer between the lofty, primarily Achilles’ self-doubt, his longing for the reassuring presence of his mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, and his conflict with Agamemnon, and the brutal visceral reality of war. At one point, Achilles gives Briseis to Agamemnon, although their relationship is not consummated and because of this Achilles later accepts her back.

Briseis fantasises about escaping, even comes close to achieving it at one point, but she is all too aware of her very precarious position. Even though her life is demeaning and not secure, she will always be an outsider and therefore a threat, she grows strangely close to Achilles, seeing his vulnerability and, eventually, the fragment of care he appears to have for her.

There is something of a fashion for retelling tales from the ancient classics at the moment; Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is a modern take on the Oedipus myth (I was not mad about that either), and Madeline Miller’s Circe, which I haven’t read, also takes Homeric mythology as its subject. The ideas are interesting, but somehow, for me, The Silence of the Girls just doesn’t quite work. I loved how ‘down and dirty’ it was, giving us perhaps the real insight into life at the time of the Trojan wars, rather different to the heroic presentation we get from Homer. But that ‘realism’ then jarred with, for example, Achilles’ seeking out his mother in the sea. These were parallel universes that collided in the novel, but there was no bridge between them, nothing to help me imagine that great myth and brutal, visceral reality could co-exist.  Perhaps that was a failure of my imagination! I also just could not get inside the author’s head in some of the scenes she created. The small domestic scenes, in Achilles’ quarters, the bedroom, even the hospital wards and the buildings where the women worked, were well-drawn, but I couldn’t quite see the bigger scenes, the ships at anchor, the battles, the idea of going to war as a daily job of work, from which combatants return, minus a few casualties, just did not quite ring true. And this lack of, for me, authenticity, clashed with the hyper-real scenes of blood, guts, mud and sex (for which read rape, because that’s what it was).

I’m not sure where I’m at with this book. Perhaps it was a grand ambition that just didn’t quite come off for me. I will read Regeneration and Union Street. I will delve deeper into Barker’s work, but as an introduction to her, this one, for me, was a bit disappointing.

Recommended if you’re a fan or a classicist.

What did you think of The Silence of the Girls?

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Book review – “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

I am not a big fan of thrillers – they aren’t usually my reading of choice – which is the only way I can explain how this book passed me by when it was first published eight years ago. I have also, in the past, eschewed big bulky paperbacks in favour of something a little less…popular! When I launched my 2020 Facebook reading challenge a few weeks ago, January’s theme was a major title from the last decade and Gone Girl was undoubtedly that. It spent several weeks at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and sold over two million copies in its first year of publication alone. If you read any reviews of the book, you will see how difficult it is to write about without spoilers and that is something I too am going to find challenging here. I will simply start by saying – OH MY GOODNESS, WHAT A BOOK!!!

Gone Girl imgThis book grabbed me by the throat right from the outset; I listened to it on audio (fantastic performances from the actors Julia Whelan and Kirby Haborne, by the way) and simply could not ‘put it down’. I got a lot of exercise in January, because going for a walk became an excuse to listen to a few more minutes’ worth!

Our two main protagonists are Nick Dunne, an out of work writer from Missouri, and his wife Amy Elliot Dunne, from New York, the only child of two psychologists who made a fortune from a children’s book series, Amazing Amy, about a perfect little girl navigating her way in the world, making perfect decisions among imperfect other people. Amy, a psychology graduate like her parents, also chose a writing career though hers is more prosaic than Nick’s, she writes personality quizzes. They meet at a party, get together, get married and share an apartment in Brooklyn, bought for them by Amy’s parents. They have a seemingly perfect life until a number of events force them to move back to Nick’s hometown. First Nick and then Amy, lose their jobs, a result of the shake up in the publishing world brought about by the internet. Then, Nick’s mother becomes terminally ill with cancer and his twin sister Go (short for Margo), asks them to return to help take care of their mother and their father who suffers with Alzheimer’s and lives in a care home. Finally, Amy’s parents run into financial difficulty and ask Amy to give them the money from her Trust Fund. It also transpires that the house they had given the couple was heavily mortgaged and they can no longer afford the repayments, so it will have to be sold.

Nick and Amy have nothing to keep them in New York so they move back to Carthage, Missouri, rent a modern house on a ghost estate where most of the properties lie empty, unsold since the economic downturn of 2008. Nick invests most of the remaining money they have (Amy’s money) in a bar with his sister.

Although I have set the scene here, as readers we are not in fact given all this information from the outset; it is drip-fed to us throughout part one. One of the most astonishing elements of this book is its brilliant structure. Amy disappears from their home at the very start of the book, on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, in what at first seems to have been a violent bloody struggle. The chapters are narrated by Nick and Amy in turn; his chapters are reflections on the recent weeks, months and years of his life with Amy in the aftermath of her disappearance, and his dealings with the detectives investigating Amy’s disappearance, and her chapters are extracts from her diary, going back to the time the couple met. The police have not yet found the diary. In this first part we learn much about the couple’s history, but also about their respective feelings about their relationship and about each other. As a reader you get drawn into the complex workings of what was a difficult marriage for both of them, but in different ways, their respective efforts to make it better and how these fared. I found myself constantly torn between the two, first on her side, then his. It’s a roller-coaster! Towards the end of part one, the inconsistencies begin to emerge and it becomes clear that not everything is quite what it seems.

I can say little more than that without giving away the plot, and the twist is such a breathtaking thing that you really need to enjoy it! I thought the characters were brilliantly drawn, all the way from Nick and Amy down to the police officers involved in the case. The book is fantastic as a straight-up thriller, but also says a lot about sexual politics, both within relationships and in wider society. The author does not take sides, and no-one comes out of it particularly well.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it, although chances are you’ve already read it! I’m keen to watch the film now, although I’m told, and I’ve read, that it’s not as good. They rarely are!

I would love to know what you thought of Gone Girl, if you have read it.

 

 

Book review – “Winter” by Ali Smith

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.

Winter imgIn 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?

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Parents and children in literature

We learned last week of the death of  Christopher Tolkien at the age of 95. Although he was a renowned Oxford scholar of Old and Middle English, the obituaries that I read, and the tributes I heard on the radio, tended to focus on his rather more famous father, JRR Tolkien. Not unreasonable; he was, after all, chief custodian, curator and champion of his father’s literary archive after his death in 1973 and from all accounts he was pretty well-adjusted, not seeming to have suffered any lack of self-confidence or self-esteem as a result of his eminent parent.

Christopher Tolkien
Image CNN.com

The same cannot be said of other children of famous or high-achieving parents: the two children of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes seem to have experienced great unhappiness – Nicholas hanged himself in 2009 and their daughter, Frieda, a poet and painter, moved far from her UK birthplace to become an Australian citizen and is three times divorced. I reviewed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a couple of weeks ago and learned that Muriel and her only son became estranged, her having left her husband and child not long after she married in 1937, and Doris Lessing also left her husband and two young children to pursue her literary career. In Lessing’s case, I am not aware of what impact the separation had on the children longer term, and, I hasten to add, I make no judgement. It cannot be easy, though, growing up in the shadow of a famous, high-achieving literary parent.

It got me thinking about parent-child relationships explored in literature and I decided to write a list! Here are my top picks (in no particular order):

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  1. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson – based on the author’s own difficult northern childhood
  2. Educated by Tara Westover – a memoir from the child of religious zealots
  3. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – harrowing novel shows us how a lack of nurturing in childhood leaves its main protagonist deeply damaged
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – an awful meddling mother and impotent father cause chaos in their daughters’ lives
  5. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens – most of Dickens’ novels focus on family relationships but this for me is one of the darkest
  6. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence – an unhealthy relationship between mother and son blights a young man’s future
  7. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – a woman suffering in the shadow of a toxic parent
  8. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy – a brilliant study of a young woman trying to escape the straitjacket of life with a domineering and emotionally manipulative parent
  9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – among his many other misdemeanours, Heathcliff would surely be found guilty of child cruelty today!

I’ll no doubt think of a few more in the coming days!

What are your favourites?

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