comments 7

Review: The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Part of my meanderings around the village’s social hot spots last night (aka other people’s living rooms) involved dropping in on my buyers to see what was going on with them.  Unfortunately they haven’t had any offers yet, which leaves me with the somewhat stressful prospect of having to go through showing my house all over again.  Especially as my vendor has found somewhere she would like to move to and so would like to get the chain on the road again.

I’m really hoping that my buyers get an offer before the deadline we gave them comes up.

Apart from that minor cloud, I’ve generally been having a good time, as we broke up for the summer holidays last week.  During the holidays, I work half days, which means that I can pack in exercise, baking, reading, writing, cleaning and everything that is just a bit too much during term time.  Oh, also answering surveys in return for Amazon vouchers.  Every so often, I am asked questions about what groceries I have bought.  The survey apologises in advance for the strangeness of some of the questions, explaining that they always pose the same questions, but the products chosen are randomly picked.  This week they were interested in my views on potatoes.  (“Which of these words best describe your emotions as you bought potatoes: Excited/Delighted/Suspicious/Angry/Swindled etc etc”.   I chose “Pleased”.)

It would be nice if life could be permanently part time on full time pay :-)

On the day we broke up, I indulged in a late night reading of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant.

This is the story of the daughter of a cloth merchant in Renaissance Florence, fifteen year old Alessandra, who has a talent for both drawing and rebellion.

The book begins with the most fabulous opening chapter, set in a nunnery.  There’s an atmosphere of tense repression that almost squeezes the breath out of you as you read it, culminating in one of the biggest surprises I’ve ever come across in a book and I’m pretty difficult to surprise!

After this begins the story proper.  It’s set against the backdrop of the death of Laurence de Medici (“the Magnificent”) and the subsequent rise of the preacher Savonarola in the ensuing power vacuum.  Political unrest makes life even more uncertain than it normally is for girls of a marriageable age.  Alessandra is an independent and modern heroine (is there any other type?) who has to decide whether she should marry for security, even though this goes against her instincts.  What will become of her artistic talent when there is no “proper” outlet by which a woman can express this?

Dunant does a really good job of capturing the danger of life at the time, caught between two extremes, with the ever present prospect of imprisonment and torture for those finding themselves on the wrong side of authority.  Although I’ve never had any interest in Italian history, I was prompted by the exciting storyline to do a bit of further research.  It seems that Dunant paints Savonarola in a more fundamentalist light than most historians, but I found it interesting to see her playing around with the points of view, and I imagined this view as reflecting the sympathies of Alessandra’s family and their friends.  She also makes a good attempt at using the characters’ actions to explain the way societal currents ran.

What I found less convincing was the character of Alessandra herself – I felt sceptical that a girl with her upbringing would have it in her to reject so many of tenets that others (such as her sister) took for granted, and have them replaced with so many sympathies that would directly translate to twenty-first century ones.  It felt as if the potential of exploring what it was really like for a fifteen year old girl in those times had been missed, and I couldn’t help comparing the way the character was written with, say, Sarah Waters’ characters, who manage to be independent and unconventional, but in a more subtle and convincing way that leaves you with the feeling that you’ve gained an insight into what things were really like for women living at that time.

Other aspects of the book also got me interested in researching the history of the nunnery as an all-female communal space where women did not need men for survival – it seems that this was type of set up indeed a minor phenomenon at a certain point in the past.

I was also really, really moved by the description of the mother-daughter bond and the realities of happened to these bonds in patriarchal societies, where they were not valued.

This was a complex book, meshing personal and political themes in a satisfying manner.  I admired the research that had gone into it, even though I could see that some artistic licence was applied.  This was especially true of the ending, which went bonkers in a way that reminded me of my all night reading of the Da Vinci code many years ago.   Much better written than the Da Vinci code, of course, but addictive in the same way all the same.


comments 3

Growing up

I went to my friend’s house to borrow a suitcase this evening and ended up staying for a drink because she had some friends round.

I haven’t seen this group for ages and last time we bumped into each other, I still felt different, as if I didn’t fit in.  Too young, not enough money, not enough experience of life.  Too different.

But tonight we had a really, really nice evening, and I didn’t feel different.  It wasn’t that I was different before, I just didn’t know how to feel the same.  And now I do.

Anyway, we’ve all known each other since my LDs were 3 and 5.  And their children are for the most part a little bit older, just about to leave for University now.

The funny thing about feeling “out of it” is the feeling that everyone else has a perfect life and you are the only one who doesn’t.  And it’s only ten years later that you realise that no-one has a perfect life.  It’s especially brought home to you when you’re all staring at a Facebook picture of someone else’s daughter, who has clearly got an eating disorder.  And another whose daughter is, “everyone knows”, a complete druggie (and it’s pretty obvious from the pics…).  And you’re all sitting there with your mouths open going “J F* H C…” because the last time you saw these kids, they were eight and holding their mum’s hand, or playing in a sandpit.  These are kids who had everything, loving parents, private education, big houses…  

On the plus side, watching children grow up is amazing, because you see them growing into people.  My friend’s daughter showed us this spoken poem/animation, “To This Day” by Shane Koyczan 

because she has to choreograph a routine for her GCSE dance and she’d like to do this.  And I thought that was so amazing.  She’s fifteen years old and already has all these creative ideas of what she would like to do to turn this poem into her own thing.  Another acquaintance has a daughter who was always so quiet and didn’t quite know what to do with herself, until she realised that she was a singer and is dedicated to that now.  Another friend who’s daughter is applying to Central St Martins, because that’s where she’ll most likely be talent spotted by advertising agencies.  

It’s funny, watching children grow emotionally, or not grow.  None of us could make sense of it.  For me, looking at what’s happened to some of our kids reminded me a lot of being at school, where there was a lot of unhappiness, a lot of normalising of eating disorders and self harm.  I’m convinced it is something to do with feeling that you belong, or not.  Feeling that you are special and that your existence matters, or not.  Obviously if I had a complete answer then I’d have solved half the adolescent problems in this country.  But I don’t even have part of an answer.  I’m just pretty relieved that my kids seem for the most part OK, because it seems that there is not rhyme or reason to this being the case or not.

comments 20

Review: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

A long time ago, when I started working for the local youth centre, my boss, who was a very wise woman, said, “Everybody has prejudices.”

Because in those days I wasn’t used to admitting that I could be in the wrong, that I couldn’t turn my mind round to be “good” or “right”, I outwardly agreed and inwardly thought – “surely it’s possible to clear your mind of any prejudices you might have??”

Since then, years of living in the real world and a slightly less off-with-the-fairies approach to life have shown me the truth of her words and I’m happy to admit that I can be as prejudiced and closed minded as the next person.

For example, one of my prejudices is towards people who have to like a main character to be able to enjoy a book.  Frankly, I find myself wondering why they can’t let go of feeling that they need to get some sort of vicarious friendship from this character and see their liking or disliking of the character as just another intellectual theme that makes up their reading of the book.  “I see myself,” I find myself thinking righteously, “as someone who is always able to engage in a book if I can see that the author has clearly thought out intentions.” The only time when I give up on a book is if I feel that the author doesn’t have clear intentions, or if I feel that they lack the technical skill to pull off their intentions properly.

Our book for this month’s book group was The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud, and there is a main character that half the group really hated, yet again. One of our group, Philippe, said, “We need to read a book that isn’t essentially the same as all the books we’ve read so far!” (which are all about repressed, slightly inferior characters feeling, well, inferior in the shadow of one far more shiningly pure.)  So we all agreed that our next book would be One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It was only a few days afterwards that someone mentioned “Magic Realism” that I did a double take and thought, “What??  No-one told me it was Magic Realism!?”

I’m not a big fan of magic realism.  I’ve read Paulo Coelho with the thought bubble “I suppose he thinks this is deep??” almost visibly hovering above my head.  I’m struggling with this Garcia Marquez and I’m only on page 18. However, he got a Nobel Prize for this book, so clearly it’s just me and my Magic Realism prejudices, and I’m also clearly not the intellectual reader I thought I was.

Anyway, The Woman Upstairs is the story of Nora, an elementary school teacher and part time artist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She is nearing forty, never married (although got close to it once) and frankly, is feeling a bit empty.  A charming new boy, Reza Shahid, joins her class, and Nora finds herself becoming close to the family, mother Sirena and father Skander.  Sirena is a famous artist and Skander a well known academic.  This is the story of how Nora falls for this family, and the relative mutual needs or otherwise of these four individuals towards each other.

I liked the book because I think that Nora’s type of character, one who puts aside their needs and holds back from going for their ambitions and relationships, really exists, but tends to be marginalised in fiction, because these characteristics don’t easily make for sympathetic characters.  It’s not a pretty story, and I didn’t like Nora, but it was interesting to see the process of that kind withdrawing from the world, and the emotion that our narrator shows as she tells the story in retrospect.

This cut no ice with a lot of the group.  They are pretty harsh when they don’t like a book!  But, as with all our other hate-the-character fests over the previous months, we got some good discussions out of it.

We spent most of the evening engaged in major discussion over the contrasts in Sirena, as a successful artist, and Nora, an unsuccessful one.  Firstly, what made an artist, which we at least agreed was a combination of attitude (creative way of thinking) and commitment (ability to avoid distraction).  Opinion varied wildly as to how much was weighted each way, with some thinking that artistry resides in an attitude that you can sense when you are with that person, regardless of how uncluttered their life is and how free to be an artist.  Others thought that you had to be totally ruthless and focussed to be an artist, although some of us argued that was only necessary if you wanted to become “successful”, whatever that meant.

I got a lot out of this discussion, as I would never have seen the book’s Artistic arguments as so significant if I hadn’t realised how different other people’s views of art were.  It definitely made me think much more about what I really am and yet again about how cluttered or otherwise I should allow my life to be.

The Artistic argument led onto another very interesting discussion about whether Sirena’s betrayal of Nora, which Nora harps on about from the very start, really is a betrayal, or just a consequence of artistic dedication? It just goes to show that famous people aren’t necessarily all that nice, which reminds me of something a television producer ex-boyfriend of mine used to tell me: “All those television presenters – they’re all egomaniacs.”  And I used to say, “What, even so and so, who looks so lovely and friendly??” And he’d say “Yep.  Otherwise they wouldn’t be on television.”  I couldn’t quite comprehend it at the time, but ultimately, I realised that that ruthlessness in getting to the top of a very competitive profession made sense.

This was backed up by the things one of our group, who’d done a lot of technically creative work on children’s television, said – it seems, some of those children’s television presenters are really horrible!

comments 10

Review: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

All the Birds, Singing, is marvellous.  I woke up this morning and thought, “I can read that Evie Wyld book!”  Then I got home from work and felt the same.

It’s been a while since I felt that much enjoyment just from the words the author uses and the scenes she paints.

The story is about two mysterious strands in Jake Whyte’s life, past and present.  Jake has settled on a remote British island, but is fleeing from something in her childhood/early adulthood in Australia.

The mystery of the present involves the deaths, one by one, of Jake’s sheep.  There is menace on the island regarding who she can and can’t trust out of her fellow sheep shearers,

It’s got the subtle hallmarks of a proper mystery too, with all sorts of red herrings laid out in sight on the way.  Although like Jake herself, the book is very much: “Here I am.  I’m not going to explain myself, or fit myself to anything.  I’m just here.”  Characterisation is sparsely drawn, reflecting Jake’s wariness of the world, but effective.  She doesn’t dwell over much on others’ motivations or histories, just tells it as she sees it.

I do admire it when an author makes every moment count, and that’s true of this book, which is quite short at just over 200 pages, but intense.  And boy, does it get intense.  But there are some lovely moments of humanity, and a lot of the tenderness that the reader really needs from a book so as not to become overwhelmed comes from the moments with the animals – the way Jake cares for her sheep, and the way she and her dog rely on each other.

The most interesting thing about this book was the way in which it tackled the problem of current Western literature being largely about addressing the problems of the middle classes, using the language of the middle classes.  How can we use language differently, to convey different ways of thinking, without producing a piece of art that feels in some way curtailed or limited?  In finding a solution to this problem, All the Birds, Singing excelled.


comments 8

Review: Skylight by David Hare

Following on from Condoms in the Shop, our latest village development is Lurkers in the Hedge.

On Friday, one of our neighbours was out walking his dog, when it suddenly started going mad at something in a hedge.  My neighbour went to have a closer look, and was startled to find a stranger staring back at him wearing full camouflage gear.

It turned out that there were three of these surveillance people stationed at various points on a corner in the village.

The nursery was understandably not very happy about the man in the car loitering outside, so they called the police, as did the people whose hedge was being used as camouflage. The police came out and questioned the watchers, but they were bona fide PIs, so there was nothing they could do, except tell them that they weren’t actually allowed into people’s hedges as part of their activities.

This was all the talk of the town village on Saturday morning in the shop, as was the fact that all our Year 10s had gone to Berlin on a history trip, and how much we missed them.

They came back this afternoon and they all looked exhausted, including the teachers.  I did think, as I dropped LD off on Thursday morning for a 5am start on a coach, how boundless my admiration for teachers was as they took 60 fifteen year olds across the Continent for four days, right at the end of term, into thirty degree heat.  I especially thought this as I got back home, my head touched the pillow, and I went back to sleep.

It was still on my mind in the evening, when I went to see a broadcast of Skylight, a play by David Hare about a teacher, Kyra Hollis, and her ex-lover, restaurateur Tom Sergeant.

Tom’s wife has recently died and he is finding it difficult to come to terms with her loss.  He comes back to see Kyra, with whom the couple had a strange triangular relationship, which started many years ago when Kyra came to work in one of their restaurants as an eighteen year old.

Kyra has a strong sense of the worthy in her life, while Tom is driven by the success of his businesses and the worth of entrepreneurship.  The two argue politically, and go back over their personal failures.  For two hours!  And you don’t even notice because it’s fascinating.

Bill Nighy as Tom does his typical Bill Nighy thing – all arrogance and vulnerability and very, very funny  I was surprised by how good Carey Mulligan as Kyra was – she is brittle, matter of fact, using humour as a defence, through which sudden intense emotion strains to and occasionally breaks through.

I found it distracting that Bill Nighy is massively older than Carey Mulligan.  The chronologies mean that Carey Mulligan is about the right age for Kyra, but Bill Nighy, reprising the role he played on stage 18 years ago, is too old.  They were engaging with each other, but I couldn’t feel any chemistry between them as a couple at all.  However, it’s difficult to think of someone who could have played the role to the same effect, with just the right nervous energy to convince.

Kyra had some fantastic speeches and lines about the way in which public sector workers are treated. The best of these was an angry, impassioned speech near the end in which she denounced politicians and journalists who sit around and talk about how the jobs of teachers and social workers should be done – well why don’t they “fucking go out and do it?” (or words to that effect.)  There was a big round applause from the on-screen audience for that.

What made the play balanced and therefore interesting was Tom’s questioning of Kyra’s motives.  Why has she chosen to replace warm, personal relationships with the massive, impersonal needs of endless groups of students?

This line of questioning also led to the funniest moments in the play.  Firstly when Tom points out that the tower block in which Kyra lives is miles and miles away from the run down area in which she teaches: “Living in one shithole, working in another, and spending all day travelling between the two,” is how he puts it, to a massive laugh from the audience (including me).

The other involves Kyra’s one-bar electric heater.  It’s a freezing cold night in December, an atmosphere beautifully evoked by the “transparent” set, and Kyra doesn’t have central heating.  After having borne the cold all night and into the morning, Tom explodes with the point that, “There are heaters out there that you can buy, that will actually heat!  And they’re not expensive, but oh no, that’s not good enough for you!”  Never has the spirit of the Argos catalogue been invoked to such dramatic effect; he’s totally right about it being only symbolically there for heat, as well as being a symbol for her suffering.

This was a great play to highlight the work of teachers and social workers, without being too worthy.  I also thought it gave an accurate insight regarding the real motive of teachers.  It’s not so much the great big mass of people who are coming through the system.  It’s to do with finding just that one who has a spark, whose life is changed by you being there.

Skylight is still on at the Wyndhams until 23rd August.

comments 12

Review: The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

  Our village shop has started selling condoms.  I’m not sure who the target market is supposed to be considering that the population is made up predominantly of married couples. I will remember the quirks of my village with great fondness. People love living here.  If people want a different sized house, quite often they don’t bother looking anywhere else, they just buy another house in the same village.  I’m the lucky recipient of an offer on my house from a downsizing couple in the village.  Hooray!  So all I have to do is wait for them to sell their house.  I’m more than ready to move now and feeling quite impatient for the next step (even though I know that will also be stressful). I’ve had to remind myself that it will probably be winter by the time the move takes place, and by the time I move in, it will be quite a different Lewes from that of the breezy evening streets I’ve been enjoying this week after long, hot days in an office.  Never let anyone tell you that the life of a database manage is anything less than thrilling.  This week, I have been double checking that all the Key Stage 2 results for Years 10 and 11 were correctly entered.  That’s both Test and Teacher Assessment levels in Maths, English and Science for 400 pupils. So thank goodness for iPlayer and Helen Dunmore’s The Betrayal. The Betrayal: BBC iPlayer The Betrayal picks up the story of Anna and Andrei ten years after the Siege of Leningrad.  Anna and Andrei first appeared in Dunmore’s The Siege, although the book also stands alone as its own story. It is 1952 and in the wake of Stalin’s Terror, everyone know that the best way to survive is to keep your head down and not draw attention to yourself.  So when Doctor Andrei is asked by a colleague to treat the seriously ill son of a prominent commander in the Secret Police, should he accept the case or decline it? Of course you can work out the answer already – there would be no storyline otherwise Nevertheless, the tension gets to you right from the beginning – the reader is presented with two characters whose past suffering is explained subtly but thoroughly, so you are already rooting for them. The story is based on the Soviet Doctors’ Plot in which a paranoid Stalin planned to set off a mass internment of Soviet Jews by framing a group of Jewish doctors for murdering high profile officials using medical means. I did find myself wishing that the historical facts of this case had been wound more tightly into the storyline of The Betrayal.  I also felt that this wasn’t a clear cut case of betrayal – it would have been interesting to have seen a greater moral dilemma, which would have led to characters making more far reaching decisions.  This could also have led to more development in the characters – I was left with the feeling that this was a beautifully rendered description of a still moment in history, rather than the feeling that I was watching something dynamic unfold.  In comparison with The Undertaking, which was searingly realistic both politically and in terms of the way war changed people, this felt a bit Leningrad-lite.  This is an earnest book, but not a serious one.  It may have been that the abridgement left out something that was in the novel, but to me this was all about what happened, rather than why it happened.

However, seeing the book as a straightforward, almost journalistic, account of what it would be to actually undergo the events in this book, you couldn’t ask for it to be more sympathetically rendered.  It’s a classic four star book for me – perfect on one level, the human sympathy one, but slightly lacking in plot, especially bearing in mind what historical and political riches there were available to draw on. Still, it’s more than worth a listen if you are at a loose end.  Or occupied on a mind numbingly boring task.

comments 18

Things that thirteen year old boys think thirteen year old girls want to hear

LD#2 came home from Year 8 Camp on Saturday afternoon.

I was nervous that she would arrive home tired, cold, grumpy, wet, perhaps even having fallen out with her friends.  But she skipped off the coach beaming all over her face.  We had a huge hug and even though I’d known she was having an adventure and so hadn’t missed her at all, I felt emotional seeing her again.  I felt proud of her positive attitude and the fact that she had made the most of her adventure away.  All my own memories of school residential trips are of struggling terribly socially. :-(

She had loads of funny stories about the activities, and about the social evenings, and about the leaking tents and just the funny things that teenagers get up to.

Year 8 was a really important year for both my girls.  This was the year during which they gradually stopped with all those frantic wasted hours of going, “I can’t do it!  I can’t, I can’t!  I’m rubbish!” about their homework, instead of actually getting on and doing it.  And me with the frustration: “Just write one sentence!  It doesn’t have to be fantastic!  You just need to write one thing!”

They became organised and independent and realised what it was that they wanted out of life.  They didn’t need me to be there in the same way that they had before.

There are some things they still aren’t ready for in Year 8, though, including some of the things that boys think girls want to hear at that age.

Boy: “I really like the dress you bought at Camp for the disco.  You should wear it again.  Boys would look at you lots.”  (Bearing in mind that this was a fancy dress disco.)

LD: “I don’t think I would like that.”

And one from my friend about her daughter’s text conversation with a boy in her class.

Boy: “I really like you.  Will you go out with me?”

Girl: “All right.”

Boy: “You’re hot!!!”

Girl: “I don’t think I want to go out with you any more!”

People, before you laugh, could this be your son’s teenage self, trying to communicate with what he imagines to be some kind of alien life form…?

Growing up is a funny thing.

I’m still sorting out the partnering up thing and I’m nearly forty…