‘In the Dutch Mountains’ by Cees Nooteboom

As a mother of three, I find it is always a challenge to get back into the swing of things after a school holiday. I am self-employed and work from home so I tend to take the holidays ‘off’ (insofar as one is ever ‘off’ as a parent!), but it always seems to take me a week or so to restore the term-time order of things and get back into my rhythm, including my reading rhythm. The dynamic at home has also been affected by the fact that my eldest is deep in GCSE revision and now on study leave, wanting feeding during the day and everything!

We took a short family holiday to the Netherlands over Easter, a country we know well and have visited annually for many years now. We spend our time either in Amsterdam (a fab city for kids, by the way) or in the far south of the country in Zeeland, a fascinating area for which I have a very deep affection. I’m a bit reluctant to plug it because it’s authentic and unspoilt, but we love the cycling, the beaches, the space, the calm, the beautiful and historic Dutch and Belgian towns and the warm welcome we receive each time we go there.

Despite my love of Holland, its art and architecture and its people, I am ashamed to say that I know very little about its literature, so on this trip I decided to take with me a book called In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom. He is one of the giants of not only the Dutch but also the wider European literary tradition. I picked up this book at a secondhand stall in a market in Dublin, so this particular copy is well-travelled!

Since starting this blog almost a year ago my reading habits have changed; I now find I am reading much more newly-published work than I have ever done before, which is great, but that has been at the expense of my reading of the classics or other contemporary fiction from recent years which I have wanted to read. There really are only so many hours in a day, after all! So, it felt lovely to be picking up a novel that was first published in 1984 and is widely considered to be a modern classic.

2017-04-26 13.45.25What is so immediately intriguing about the title of the novel, of course, is that Holland is very, very flat. But In the Dutch Mountains imagines a world where the Netherlands extends much further south of its modern borders to northern Spain and the Pyrenees (hence the Dutch mountains). The narrator is himself a Spaniard, a civil servant who not only relates the story, but also philosophises on the processes of writing and story-telling: a story within a story. The main characters in the tale are Kai and Lucia, a slightly other-worldly circus couple, remarkable for their physical perfection, who are relieved of their jobs (because times have moved on and audience tastes have changed) and find themsleves travelling south to look for work. Kai is kidnapped and Lucia sets out on a journey to find him, accompanied by an old woman she meets on the way who agrees to drive her to find her lover.

The book is a vivid re-telling and reinterpretation of an iconic European fairy-tale, The Ice Queen, and explores the boundaries between myth and reality, but as a 21st century reader the strongest themes that came out for me were that of migration (for work), and what it means to be one nationality or another. The author contrasts the orderly, tidy north (what we now know as Holland) and the more chaotic, but freer south. He himself is Dutch but his narrator is part of the Spanish establishment (an inspector of roads), who happens to be a part-time novelist and philosopher. Alfonso, the narrator, is writing in the quiet of a school, empty of children who are on their summer holiday, a middle-aged adult sitting at a diminutive desk and chair. Thus the novel sets up a whole series of contradictions which invite us to challenge our assumptions and expectations.

This is a short novel, but one which merits reading slowly and deeply, and I will probably re-read it at some point. It won the 1993 European Prize for Literature.  It was a curious read and I can’t exactly say I loved it, but I did find it fascinating, and it wasn’t at all what I expected. I think it’s always good to push your reading boundaries and as I read this book I certainly found myself drawn into a very different literary tradition than the one I have become used to in recent years. As a citizen of a nation that has expressed its intention to leave the European Union I feel strongly that European literature has a great deal to offer us in terms of enhancing our understanding of and empathy with our near neighbours, and I intend to read more of it in the future.

What European novels have you read? Do you think they are different in style and tone to English literature?

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Easter holiday reading suggestions

2017-03-30-11-55-53.jpgI’m off on a short holiday to the Netherlands so I’m planning to take some reading with me, of course, and have decided on another book from my ‘to read’ pile (I’m in the groove now!) called In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom. It looks delightfully weird and I love the Dutch so am very excited to be reading it at last. I’m also taking Roxane Gray’s Difficult Women, a collection of short stories which was a gift from a friend. Looking forward to that and hoping I can get some tips for my own short story writing. I’ll also take North and South which I’m re-reading this month as part of my 2017 reading challenge.

If you’re looking for ideas yourself and would like something light and amusing which you can dip in and out of, you could try Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe. I mentioned this book in a blog a few weeks ago; I read it whilst on a ‘break’ from a book I was finding quite heavygoing (Do Not Say We Have Nothing). It was the perfect antidote: a straightforward jolly read. It’s a series of letters from Nina, to her sister Victoria in Leicestershire and therefore readable in bitesize chunks.

Love Nina imgNina is twenty when we meet her in the early 1980s. She lives with Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her two young sons, Sam and Will, to whom she is a nanny. They live at 55 Gloucester Crescent NW1, an area that was also home to other literary types, among them Alan Bennett and Claire Tomalin, who also make appearances in the book, particularly ‘AB’ who is a great friend of ‘MK’.

Nina’s letters home detail the events of daily life in the household, and are brought alive by her pithy observations on the quirkiness of her employer and the neighbours. It was particularly nice to read this after watching Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van over Christmas, which was also set in Gloucester Crescent and features many of the same people. Nina’s affection for the family shines through and she writes with great fondness of Sam and Will, her young charges. MK is idiosyncratic, but charming, and Alan Bennett leaps off the page. The personalities of the individuals come across strongly; Nina clearly has a talent for this since much of what we learn about them is through the conversations she reproduces in the letters as extracts of dialogue. She manages to pick out the little details or the nuances and word choices that reveal so much.

The letters cover a couple of years, and at the end of the book Nina is part way through her degree in English literature at Thames Polytechnic. By this stage you can see she herself is becoming a more accomplished chronicler, although the later letters, many of which are about her university friends, I found less endearing than the earlier ones.

Nina, now in her 50s, eventually became a writer, and had two children with Nunney, one of the other inhabitants of Gloucester Crescent (though they got together much later), and has subsequently published two novels in addition to this memoir: Man at the Helm and Paradise Lodge, which I’d be interested in reading. Love, Nina was also adapted for television by Nick Hornby, and starred Helena Bonham Carter. I think that could be fun to watch.

So, a good little read, perfect if you’re going away this Easter holiday.

What are you reading this Spring?

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Just Kids

JUst kids imgI’ve been an admirer of Patti Smith for a number of years now. I’m a bit young to have been a fan of hers when she first broke onto the music scene in the mid-1970s. I became aware of her much later when I picked up a sale copy of her debut album Horses. I was also aware of Robert Mapplethorpe, the late artist-photographer who was her lover and then close friend when they were both very young. Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 and it must have been in the 1990s that I saw an exhibition of his work in London (I had an interest in photography at the time). Later on again I learned about the connection between the two and how Patti had been, if you like, Mapplethorpe’s ‘muse’ when he was first discovering his art.

I’d known about this book for a while, having heard Patti Smith talking about it in a radio interview, but I picked this up, ironically, in New York, when I was there on holiday last summer, from the famous Strand Bookstore. I’d hoped to read it whilst there (and perhaps visit some of the places she mentions in the book) but that didn’t happen. I decided to read it as part of my 2017 reading challenge; March’s challenge is to read something from my ‘to read’ pile, which, as I have written here recently, is substantial! And it has been a real pleasure to read.

The book is an account of her and Mapplethorpe’s early artistic development. They found each other by accident in New York City in the late 1960s when they had both arrived there in search of a more meaningful life. Their early life together was marked by poverty and the struggle to be recognised. In many ways their life was pretty ordinary, were it not for all the incredible people they meet and hang out with – Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs – and if you are familiar with New York City, particularly the lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village areas, you will enjoy the mentions of different places, particularly the infamous Chelsea Hotel where many a star has risen and fallen.

But the book is so much more than that; it is an account of how artists find their voice and their medium, but it is also a love story. Patti writes tenderly and affectionately of her love for Mapplethorpe and the profound mutual respect that lay at the heart of their relationship. You don’t need to be admirers of them to appreciate this. It is also an account of how love changes; Mapplethorpe loved Patti deeply but he eventually came out as homosexual. He had been brought up a Roman Catholic and this was a long and difficult process for him. Patti later married a musician Fred Smith, and they lived a happy humdrum family life together in Michigan with their children until he died at the age of 45 in 1994. To that extent the book is also about what happens when love moves on, and how former lovers can evolve their relationship and grow as a result.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, particularly the escape into bohemian New York in the 1970s. Some books you read of this nature can make you feel your own life is rather dull and insignificant, but at the centre of this book is not glamour and sensationalism, but the day to day human love that we all need and hopefully most of us experience at some point in our lives. To that extent it is a story we could all identify with.

Who knew about ‘The Secret Life of Bees’?

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When I put it out on social media a couple of weeks ago that I was about to start reading this book, I had a number of comments back from people telling me how much they had enjoyed it, so I started with high expectations. I was not disappointed. I was only puzzled at how I’d missed it first time around, but then it was published in 2001, the year my first child was born, which explains a lot! I was totally absorbed by this book, as were my fellow book club members – I read it very quickly because it was so hard to put down. It is a very female book in the sense that it is full of strong women, so perfect to be reading around the time of International Women’s Day.

The central character is fourteen year-old Lily. When we first meet her she is living a lonely, loveless existence on her father’s peach farm; we learn that her mother died when she was four years old in a mysterious accident with a gun which seems to have involved Lily pulling the trigger. Lily lives with her father, whom she calls T. Ray, an indication of the distance and lack of filial affection in their relationship. It’s worse than that though; T.Ray’s treatment of his daughter is borderline abusive. He is emotionally and physically cruel, administering harsh physical treatment for what he perceives to be her misdemeanours, and exploiting her labour. Lily’s only friend is the black maid Rosaleen.

Lily longs for her dead mother and craves the affection she feels sure her mother would have given her. She spends time imagining what her mother was like and cherishes the small trinkets which serve as her only memories. One of these trinkets is a picture of a black Madonna with the words ‘Tiburon S.C.’ written on the back. It transpires that Tiburon is another town in South Carolina, some distance from Sylvan where Lily lives.

The novel is set in the Summer of 1964, when the Civil Rights Act had just been made law, giving people of colour the right to vote throughout the United States. Whilst racial equality had been affirmed in law, it was not yet fully accepted in the wider society. Rosaleen walks into town to register to vote and is involved in an incident with some local thugs. She is beaten up by these men, but finds herself arrested and put in jail. Her injuries are so severe that she is sent to hospital. For Lily this is the final straw and she sees this as an opportunity for them both to escape their repressed life. She gets Rosaleen out of the hospital from under the nose of the guard who is meant to be watching her, and the two women make their way to Tiburon by hitchhiking and walking.

Lily has no plan beyond getting to Tiburon and does not even know what she intends to do or what she expects to find when she gets there, but there is no doubt she feels drawn there and, in reality has no other option. Through a series of chance encounters, Lily and Rosaleen find themselves at ‘the pink house’, the home of the calendar sisters, August, June and May, three black women who run a cottage industry from their home, producing honey. The label on their jars has a picture of the same black Madonna that Lily has among her mother’s possessions. It turns out that the sisters also belong to a group called The Daughters of Mary, a small religious coterie which worships Mary, mother of Jesus (manifested in the black Madonna, of whom they also have a statue in their home), as the source of divine love and power.

The sisters take in Lily and Rosaleen and they spend the summer with them, working for their board and lodging. Over the weeks and months, Lily begins to uncover some truths about her mother and her own story, which are not easy for her to bear. Lily also learns what it is to be loved as her relationship with one of the sisters, August, develops, and she is accepted by the other sisters and their companions.

This is a wonderfully written book with a powerful sense of time and place. The setting, hot, sultry South Carolina is beautifully conveyed. It is not a light book; there are some dark and sinister undertones here with the racial violence, child cruelty and social injustice, but it is ultimately a hopeful and uplifting book. Through Lily, Rosaleen and the sisters, truth and goodness ultimately prevail.

I loved this and would recommend it highly. Great bedtime reading, great holiday reading, great anytime reading, this is storytelling at its best.

Finished at last!

 

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I cannot remember when it last took me so long to read a book. I started reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing in early January and finished it at the end of February. I toyed with giving up on it (as I blogged about here), but instead I took a couple of ‘breaks’ to read other books, which interrupted the flow for me a little, but also helped me to persevere. At over 460 pages it’s of a considerable length, but I’ve taken less time to read longer books. It’s a tremendous achievement, a work of scholarship, but I found it really hard-going. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize last year; I’ve read the other five and I have to say that although in some ways this is the ‘finest’ book, it was not, for me at least, the best read. It has also been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced today.

I’m also finding it fiendishly difficult to review! It’s a book about China. It covers a period from the mid-1960s, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution was instigated, to the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the government’s military reaction to which resulted in several hundred deaths. These deaths, however, pale into insignificance when compared to the thousands, possibly millions who were tortured, killed and persecuted in the previous forty years under Communist rule. The great horror the author explores more closely in this book, however, is the obsessive annihilation of all ‘unauthorised’ culture.

The novel begins in Canada where 10-year old Marie lives with her mother. Marie’s father, we learn, committed suicide, leaving many papers and a mystery. Then Ai-Ming comes into their lives, a refugee from China whose links to Marie’s father are not clear initially. She is a troubled young woman, though at this stage we do not know why. Marie becomes close to Ai-Ming and with her she begins to uncover some of the mysteries lying within her father’s remaining effects, but Ai-Ming eventually disappears, leaving many unanswered questions. Marie sets out to uncover the full story of the connections between Ai-Ming’s family and her father and most of the book is a detailed first hand account of these events.

Ai-Ming’s father, Sparrow, was a gifted composer at the prestigious musical academy in Shanghai. Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, a little younger and a gifted pianist. The third key individual is Zhuli, Sparrow’s young cousin who lives with him and his parents because her own parents have been imprisoned in remote labour camps for crimes against the state. Zhuli is a prodigious violinist. For each of our three main protagonists, music not only dominates their life, but their whole being. The homogenisation of culture under Mao, the proscribing of musical performance and the condemnation of musicians as ‘bourgeois rightists’ has profound effects on their lives. The book is primarily about how each is affected, both the shared horror they feel, and the different paths they must each follow for self-preservation.

It is a profoundly moving book: the horrors of the time are recounted in breathtaking detail and the aims of the book are noble. The author paints a picture of how the Cultural Revolution, by denying the expression of a shared history through art, literature and music, and by prohibiting so much that was beautiful and valuable, was a programme of dehumanisation that exercised control by turning a mass of people into savages. There is no doubt that Madeline Thien is an extremely talented writer. However, I was only able to become really engaged with the book partway through; the first hundred pages or so just failed to move me at all. I found the transitions from 1990 Canada to 1960s China rather clunky; each time we were with Ai-Ming and Marie and just beginning to get to know them, we were suddenly drawn back to China and a set of random characters in whom I struggled to get interested. It was when Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai’s story came to the fore that I began to become more invested. Even then though there would be extremely long sections of the book telling us their story, without even a mention of Ai-Ming and Marie. Yes, the author ties everything up very cleverly at the end, but it rather rendered the Ai-Ming/Marie reflective device a bit redundant. I think it would have been just as good a story without involving these two at all.

So, a powerful and moving book, a necessary one perhaps, demonstrating the dangers of oppression, control and the regulation of art and culture, but a book that is hard-going at times.

Have you read this book? I’d be interested in your views

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I have 14 books on my ‘to read’ pile – oops!

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And that’s just the living room pile! I have a few more beside my bed, and, ahem, a shelf or two full in bookcases here and there. If I sat down and worked out how long it would take me to get through them all I’d probably find I don’t need to buy another book for…some time! It’s a fairly harmless vice, compared to some, but I can’t help thinking that there’s something wrong with me – am I an eternal optimist (thinking I CAN read all these books) or do I have my head stuck in the sand (believing I WILL read all these books)? Is it wasteful? Of money and the earth’s resources? Or am I right to reward the many hard-working writers who have put so much time and effort into their books, by purchasing copies, even if I might never read them?

Who knows, but the piles do rather haunt me and get bigger in my mind, in true Dorian Gray fashion.

2017-03-01-13-21-23-hdrSo, the task for March on my 2017 reading challenge is to grip up this issue and tackle one of the books on my ‘to read’ pile that has been sitting there the longest. It’s Just Kids by Patti Smith. I came to Patti relatively late in life; I was a bit young to be into her in the ’70s when she was prominent. I’m not a big music fan and am relatively ignorant but I picked up her career-defining album Horses in one of those ‘2 for a tenner’ type sales in HMV, or somewhere similar, a few years ago, and it quickly became one of the soundtracks of my 30s, and my children loved it too! We all loved ‘Gloria’ particularly and that song would definitely be one of my Desert Island Discs, both because I love the power and energy of the song and because it brings back happy memories of us all singing in the car – “Gloria, G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!”

2017-03-01-11-40-14Patti Smith is a fascinating woman who has led a fascinating life. I have been meaning to read this book for years (it was published in 2010), so when I came across it in the Strand Bookshop whilst on my trip to, where else, New York last summer, it had to be bought! (It’s a very New York book.)

I’m looking forward to starting it, especially as I have now at long last finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing, with which I rather struggled, as I wrote about here a couple of weeks ago (I’ll post my review of that book soon). Reading Just Kids will I hope transport me back to last summer as I await the proper arrival of spring; I see a few snowdrops sprouting in my garden, but I also saw snow yesterday so we’re not there yet.

So, if you fancy joining me on the challenge this month, and picking a book from your ‘to read’ pile, do let me know what you’ll be tackling and why. (I think I’ll also give up book-buying for Lent!)

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A month of poetry

How often do you read a poem? The answer for me is rarely these days. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to include some poetry in my reading challenge for the year, to make myself sit down and do it. Why February? Well, firstly, it was Valentine’s Day last week, a time when one is more inclined, perhaps, to encounter a verse or two (or maybe even write one!) Secondly, and much more prosaically, it was half term, so I knew I wouldn’t get as much reading done as usual.

Well, I didn’t write my husband any poems (he was away, for goodness’ sake!), but I did read a few. The challenge was to choose a poem for each week and to read it every day for that week. In other words, four poems. The first one I chose was The Wild Swans at Coole by WB Yeats, a favourite of mine, having first got to know his work when studying for my English degree. It’s also a short poem, so an easy way into the challenge. First published a century ago (pure coincidence that I chose it), a year after the Easter Rising in Dublin, which affected Yeats deeply, the First World War was still going strong, and it was the year that he first married (at the age of 51), never having persuaded the real love of his life, Maud Gonne, to accept him.

“Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.”

It is a poem about ageing, about loss and grief and about the passage of time and Yeats’ search for true lasting beauty in a world where all about him was deteriorating and decaying. I had a different response to the poem, reading it now, aged forty-something, than I did in my early twenties, for obvious reasons.

I’ve always wanted to get to know Emily Dickinson (1830-86) better; she is a celebrated American poet, who lived as a virtual recluse in Massachusetts. She remains something of an enigma, not least because of the deep passions expressed in her poetry, so at odds with what is known about her life. A book was published in 2015 by Nuala O’Connor called Miss Emily, written from the point of view of an Irish maid who was taken on by the Dickinson household. I am keen to read this now, having dipped into the poetry.

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I picked up this lovely little volume in my local Oxfam bookshop (what wonderful work this charity does, not only in its programmes abroad, but in providing many towns with such a fantastic literary resource). From it I chose poem no. 249 (Dickinson did not give titles to her poems so they are known by numbers or first lines) “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” Very appropriate for the week in which Valentine’s Day fell and fascinating when you think of the kind of life she led – a middle class spinster living in 19th century rural America.

 

 

“Wild Nights – Wild Nights!

Were I with thee

Wild Nights should be

Our luxury!”

For my final two choices I thought I’d better get a bit  more modern, so I chose Jackie Kay from my other Oxfam purchase The Penguin Book of Poetry and Britain and Ireland since 1945. It’s quite an old anthology, published in 1998, so only one of Jackie’s poems is in there Brendon Gallacher. For my brother Maxie, but what a super poem it is. It’s about the narrator’s imaginary friend, a fantasy of a life much more exciting than her own. I had an imaginary friend as a child (Leda), through whom I had access to a much more colourful world, so can idenitfy with the theme! I also love listening to Jackie Kay, and here is a YouTube video of her reading this poem

 

The final poem for my challenge, which I shall continue reading next week, is Warming Her Pearls by the current British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It is written from the point of view of a lady’s maid, one of whose tasks is to wear her mistress’s pearls before she goes out, in order that they are not cold on her skin. It has obvious themes about class but also has a deep erotic resonance – another one for Valentine’s Day perhaps!

I’ve enjoyed this month’s challenge much more than I expected and I have actually read more poems as a result than the four that I set myself. Poetry really is a pleasure and requires a lot less time commitment than a novel. It’s also incredibly relaxing!  I would urge you to give it a try if it’s not your usual thing.

Do you have a favourite poem or poet?

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