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Review: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to!

As with The Goldfinch, I’m very late arriving with this, but this seems to be turning into the summer when I finally have time to read all those big thick books I’ve been putting off.

The Luminaries is a pseudo-Victorian mystery set in New Zealand during the gold panning days.   As would have been the case at that time and place, the large cast of characters is very male, with the exception of a prostitute and an enigmatic “femme fatale,” and very white, apart from a couple of Chinese men and a native New Zealander.

Differentiation between all these characters is helped by the fact that their roles are strongly identified with their profession/place in society.  On another level, Catton has assigned each a sign of the Zodiac, or a planet, and there are two “moon” and “sun” characters, the mysteriously missing young man Emery Staines and prostitute Anna Wetherall.  The “Zodiac” characters’ actions motives revolve around the “moon” and the “sun”.

If this all sounds very complicated, the nice thing is that you don’t have to know anything about this at all to enjoy the book, which is basically a murder mystery, done in that atmospheric manner that I love my mysteries to unfold in, and which is so different from most modern mysteries/thrillers, which I don’t get on with at all.

I’d heard criticisms of the book’s complicated structure, but I found that I liked it.  Each section is half as long as the one before.  That immediately got me thinking about the way mathematical series work, and how the sums of some series get bigger and bigger (diverge) and the sums of others converge, ie get closer and closer but never exactly get to the same point as a number.  So if you add a half and a quarter and an eighth and keep going with terms that are half as big again, you get to 1.   There are these things called Baravelle spirals, which illustrate what I am thinking of.  For me, it mirrored the idea that the mystery was getting ever more complex, but that we would never really reach the heart of it.

The best thing about the book was the incredible way in which the twenty-eight year old Catton (and that’s twenty-eight when it was published! Never mind the time it took her to write and research it) empathised with the way outsiders, especially racial and gender outsiders, had to battle so hard to survive in this harsh society.  Some of the backstories were full of terrible injustice, and as the novel unfolded, I found I was rooting for the “Goodies” and wanting the “Baddies” to come to a sticky end – something I find a compelling motive to read on.

The end was the only thing that was a bit disappointing – it didn’t have the emotional closure that I would have liked, considering how much I had invested in the characters by the end of it.  Still, I just as much enjoy an exciting journey as I do a great destination.

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Parents and children: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast

My kids have suddenly started doing really grown up things.

LD#2, the 14 year old, has started a blog. to record the pictures she has drawn, and the films she has watched. I was really surprised when I saw it, because when she described it, I imagined that she’d just put up a picture and written something like “Here is a picture” on it.  Whereas it turns out she’s highly articulate and capable of documenting all her reasons for choosing to draw what she drew the way she drew it, and of describing her reactions.

LD#1, the 16 year old, went on a two day painting course over the summer, going off to study the sea for half a day, then going back to the studio where the course was held to paint the picture.  She dropped art at school two years ago, so I was a bit nervous about how she’d cope with the course, but she coped fine:

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although she came home absolutely exhausted both days.

Both of them went to serve tea at one of the Lewes Artwave over the weekend, which is something they’ve never done before.

My friends have this huge garden, which is great for displaying sculptures

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And also a large pond, on which their enterprising 10 year old son was offering boat rides

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It was worth £2 for the sales pitch alone, which went like this:

“If you want me to take you in the boat, I will.  Otherwise, I won’t.”  (Good start.)  “The life jackets are free, but if you want me to jump in and rescue you, it’s £3.”

I took my chances with the life jacket and was rowed round the pond, to enjoy a really lovely view.  I just think it’s so incredible to have the opportunity to row round your own pond as a child, and also to show such enterprising spirit.

I remember my mum totally underestimating at all stages what I was capable of, whereas by the time I was about sixteen (or even six), I thought that I clearly had a better idea of how to handle most life situations than she did.  Eg one of my earliest memories is of being at a party and eating some of those shiny sugar decorations, and my mum going totally ballistic when she found out, because she thought they were metal.

That’s still my perception, although now I look at my kids, I wonder how true it really was?  At the same time, I think I probably suffer too from what my mother did, which was not realising that my children (and my friends’ child) have grown up and taken in the world around it, and are capable of forming their own perfectly competent reactions to it.

Finally, at the other end of the parents and children spectrum, I got round to reading Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

This graphic novel is a combination of a memoir of Roz Chast’s childhood, and the history of her parents, and a brutally honest look at the realities of coping with extremely aged parents, who are dying very slowly.  The observations Chast makes about her past, her parents and their idiosyncrantic ways of bringing her up, and of interacting with the outside world, are very relatable and funny.  It complements the serious side of the book well – as her parents age, the funny sides of their personalities remain, making it a little easier for the reader to digest what is happening to them.  But the other side of funny, the parts that were always hard for Chast to cope with, get worse.  This is a very memorable book.

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My Daughter’s Sixth Form Reading List

A few people were interested in what was on my daughter’s reading list.  Everyone takes exams at age 16 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in what is generally the fifth year of secondary school.  She’s just got the results of those (6A*s and 4 As and an A in the FSMQ Additional Maths!) and will be starting sixth form college in September.

Her new college has issued her with a reading list, and I have dutifully gone and ordered all the books, which have now arrived, and I asked her how she was getting on with it.

“We only have to read one,” she explained.  (Although as she didn’t object to me buying them all, I assume she will get round to reading them all at some point.)

Last year this college got 37 people into Oxbridge, so I assume they know what they are doing, still just the one book does seem the definition of setting the bar low (or as I read in one online student publication recently, “setting the bar so low it’s practically a doorstep.”)

Great big long reading lists are a common feature of highly academic private schools, like the one I went to.  I have mixed feelings about those lists, as although they introduced me to some very diverse writers such as John Wyndham, Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson, they were generally shot through with a very prescriptive idea of books that we should have been reading, ie “classics”, and there were a fair few teachers (by no means all, but some) who seemed to frown on any kind of reading that wasn’t from this canon.

Incidentally, LD#2 has a reading list too, a new idea from her non-selective comprehensive school, which is attempting to drive up its standards.  Her list has 5 quite random looking books on it, and includes Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife.

LD#1’s sixth form reading list is as follows:

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (had never read, but now have)

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (was on my school reading list and have read)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte (a less prominent Bronte book, which has therefore been overlooked by me)

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (the only big book on the list, I tried years ago but didn’t get on with it, found the characters a bit over the top.  I might give it another go.)

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (totally vindicating my decision earlier in the year to take them to a screening of this! Despite the fact that the younger one didn’t understand what was going on, and the older one was cross it went on so long because she had an essay to finish)

Selected Poems by Thomas Hardy (Urgh)

Selected Poems by T S Elliot (I know nothing of Eliot’s poetry, but I should)

Tess of the d’Urbevilles by Thomas Hardy (again on my childhood reading list and have therefore read, although not quite to the end as I found it totally depressing)

Nora by Colm Tóibín (not read this, I find Tóibín slightly hard work)

The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (haven’t read but definitely will)

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald, a book that should be re-read every few years or so

The Great Gatsby arrived first, so that’s the one she read first.  After that, she went for Housekeeping.  Maybe because it’s the shortest one, who knows?

If I was putting together a reading list, what would I include?  Maybe The Secret History, although I think that would be considered a bit too long to make the cut.  Likewise any of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books.  Eliot instead of Bronte.  But actually, I’m struggling to think of short books that represent the canon of English Literature.

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Review: The Reunion – Guantanemo Bay (Radio 4)

I listen to a lot of speech radio over the summer, because it is so quiet at work it can feel a bit lonely.

I heard an amazing programme last week – The Reunion, which is on Radio 4 at 9am on Fridays.

The programme brings together various people who were affected by historical and political events and they are interviewed, very sensitively by Sue MacGregor, about their version of events.  The topics are as diverse as Wallace and Gromit, the creation of New Labour, but also covers different tragic events.

On Friday, a production team had somehow managed to gather together Clive Stafford-Smith (human rights lawyer), Colonel Mike Bumgarner, who was head of the guard force at Guantanemo Bay, and two former inmates, Moazzem Begg, a British national, and Sami al Hajj, who was a Sudanese cameraman with Al-Jazeera.  Not only did they not kill each other on air, the whole interview took place with thoughtfulness and dignity.

It must be everyone’s worst Kafka-esque nightmare to imagine themselves caught up in a prison system where there is no chance of answering charges, indeed, of there not even being charges to answer.  Sami al Hajj very calmly described how the US dropped leaflets promising bounty for any terrorists turned in, and it was as a result of this that he said someone denounced him to the authorities.  He also described the tortures that he underwent when having his “confession” extracted, which included hearing a woman screaming and being told that it was his wife, who would also be tortured until he confessed.

On the other side, Colonel Mike Bumgarner described his attempts to clean up and humanise treatment of the prisoners, and conversations he had had with hardened terrorists in Guantanemo, who would argue with fervour about the righteousness of their actions.

Sometimes the accounts of what happened would conflict, but this was allowed to hang in the air.  This was not a confrontational programme, but one that made you think of the awful complexities of how this prison came to exist, and why it remained in existence for such a long time.

The only slight quibble was that it resulted in the worst segue, worse than any weird item combination on Woman’s Hour, that I have ever heard on the radio.  “And next week, Mary Berry and Prue Leith!”

Listen to The Reunion.

I also listened to Miles Jupp in In and Out of the Kitchen.  I always listen to this comedy about slightly neurotic cookery writer Damian Trench, but it was especially funny last week and/or the situation struck a chord.  Damian and his partner Anthony went on a narrowboat holiday with their builder, parents and friends and the cramped conditions and random mix of people was hilarious.  It also reminded me of a holiday my friend went on this summer, which resulted in her walking off a canal boat and going home, leaving a furious ex-friend behind her shouting, “But how are we going to manage the locks without you?”

Listen to In and Out of the Kitchen here.

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Review: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

LD#1 has a reading list for her new sixth form college and so we have a lot of new reading matter in the house.

They are all short books too, as if the tutors didn’t want to scare anyone off.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson is the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, and what happens to them when their mother dies when they are young.  They are brought up by various family members, all of whom have in common a tendency to extreme solitude and instability.

I couldn’t get over how similar this book is to Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle – a strong influence of femaleness; of a mental state that is abnormal to onlookers, but perfectly logical and normal to those experiencing it; a feeling of inevitability; the overwhelming influence of the natural world.  In fact, this last theme was something that caused me to feel at times quite physically uncomfortable while I read both books, but also sometime fascinated and exhilarated.

There are also several themes that are the inversions of each other: Housekeeping is about a solitariness that exists because we are stuck in the very largeness of the world, while Castle is about the threat of the outside world and how to keep oneself away from it.   Simple Christian imagery runs through Housekeeping, while Castle is more in the tradition of witchcraft and fairytale.

Both books are amazingly original in the way they create fantastic alternative worlds using situations, peoples and landscapes that are recognisably everyday.  Robinson is much more startling and memorable in her use of imagery of language, although I guess Jackson was the first in having the idea… I’d be really fascinated to know whether Robinson was influenced by Jackson in her writing of this book, although I haven’t been able to find anything out about this.

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Review: Song of the Sea

My child berated me the other day for not showing her enough Disney films when she was younger.

I said she could watch them now, as she is old enough for them not to have any adverse effects on her.

OK, that’s probably a bit unfair, and I don’t mind Disney films as much as I used to when I was an angry and idealistic (and slightly annoying) young person.  But it is weird to live in a world where Disney puts out any random tat and has it gross millions of dollars, while Song of the Sea, which is probably the best animated film I have ever seen, played to five people on the afternoon I saw it.

Song of the Sea is an Oscar nominated Irish animation about a boy called Ben who lives on an island in a lighthouse with his mum and dad.  One night his pregnant mum disappears, leaving behind a baby girl, who Ben and his father name Saoirse.  As Saoirse grows up, she becomes worryingly drawn to the sea, to the extent that Ben’s grandmother comes and takes the children away from the island because of the danger that she perceives.

Ben and Saoirse escape, and the rest of their film follows their journey back to the island.

There are so many things that make this a great film.  It looks and sounds beautiful.  It’s properly artistic in the sense that it draws out and emphasises with its visual and aural effects the most striking parts of each landscape – the wet bruised looking clouds, the confusion of the city, the winding of the country roads.  Isn’t that so much better than a Disney-fied world where everything is flat and bright and where even the faces follow a formula??

The story itself draws on a lot of tradition about Irish myths and stories, using them as a background.  Mythical characters people the narrative, but their actions and attitudes also parallel the lives of the “real” characters.  The interaction between the family members is very honest and humorously done – Ben’s attitude towards his sister is both loving and resentful, and there was a real core of sadness that didn’t flinch from the question of what you do if you love someone, but really don’t think that you can be with them.

It’s funny that I saw this in the same week that I read Niall Williams’s History of the Rain, which attempts to explore similar themes, of family, of myth, of Irish landscape – this is so much better!  Even the rain is better in this film – it’s not so constant, and therefore used to better contrasting effect.  About half way through the film, I was thinking, “OK, this is quite pretty, I’ve had a bit of a laugh, the kids are cute, now there’s just going to be a bit of a chase and a few spells towards the end,” and right at that moment, this unbelievably powerful emotional sequence unfurled across the screen, and it was really emotionally intense right until the end.

I don’t usually hold back with the tears during a film, but I had to towards the end this time because I would have been a bit embarrassing.

Children both seemed quite unaffected by it, though.  Afterwards, LD#1 said that it was good, but LD#2 said that she preferred the Moomins film.  I obviously have minority tastes.

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Review: History of the Rain by Niall Williams

I have just come back from a few days of holiday.  Always one to travel light, I took just a 10 litre backpack with me, and embarked on a Kindle reading campaign, downloading books I suspected I wouldn’t want to keep, ie those I didn’t necessarily feel a strong affinity for, but which I felt I should read.

I had a go at Niall Williams’s History of the Rain, which was Booker long listed in 2014.  In fact, the title of the Kindle book is History of the Rain: Longlisted for the Man Booker. 

This family history is narrated by nineteen year old Ruth Swain.  Not only is Ruth seriously ill and bedridden, but the landscape of her family’s narrative rolls out across various disastrous landmarks along the way.  Ruth’s own history is that of a clever, awkward, bookish girl from County Clare, and she reminisces about the run-of-the-mill range of stuff that normally befalls clever, awkward girls in books.

The book’s best point is the musicality of the language and the emphasis on the importance of story telling in passing on history.

There is a lot of bog and rain, though.  Almost every scene involves some sort of rot or damp and while I think the story of Ruth’s father, the stubbornly incompetent farmer and his perpetually failing crops, is supposed to be funny, it just made me wince.  Overall, reading the book gave me a very strong impression that I had really been sitting out in the rain, becoming intimately acquainted with its falling.  This is undeniably an effect, but one that has probably left me feeling more ill-disposed towards it than this sweet natured book deserves.

I’d be interested to know whether anyone else has read this and could help me out with some more positive insights!