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Books for our times: From The Da Vinci Code to The Year of the Runaways…

Twelve years ago, my husband had just died, and I was having a lot of difficulty sleeping.  For my birthday, someone gave me a copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  They didn’t know anything about it, just that it might involve maths/code and so I might like it.

I really loved it!  I was totally immersed in its urgency and it made me forget about everything going on around me.  I stayed up till about three in the morning so I could finish it (there wasn’t much point trying to sleep anyway.)  I remember being awestruck by the fact that the main characters seemed to be awake for about seventy-two hours solid, as every time they found somewhere they thought they were safe, they had to run away again.

It was only later that I realised the disdain with which the book is regarded:-) In particular, I read a review which said that a much better read on a similar subject, the secret life of the Templars, was Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, so when someone suggested that we read this for our next book group read, I said I would definitely go for that.

I actually did prefer The Da Vinci Code over Foucault’s Pendulum.  For a start, Foucault’s Pendulum is huge, and it wasn’t a good start when members of the group had to go down to the Post Office depot to pick up their orders because they were too large to fit into people’s letter boxes.

I was also surprised by how hilariously dated Foucault’s Pendulum was.  It was like watching an Eighties computer hacking-crossed-with-horror film.  Near the beginning of the book, there’s a scene in which the hero has about ten thousand attempts at guessing the password for a computer belonging to his friend, in times that were clearly set before the rules for setting up a strong password became commonplace knowledge.  Near the end, there is a scene where some people get eaten by a blob.  At least I think that is what happens.  It gets very confusing.  The hero becomes very confused as to what is real and what is fantasy and spends a lot of the latter stages of the novel with a headache induced by the twists of what he has discovered or not discovered.  I empathised with this in a way similar to my identification with sleeplessness in The Da Vinci Code.

The Da Vinci Code could almost have been made-to-measure for the nineties consumer, who were being treated to fast developing adventure and special effects driven films in the cinema.  Both I think were products of their time in terms of subject matter too, as well as aesthetic approach.  I found it difficult to care about the worldwide conspiracy theory that underpinned Foucault’s Pendulum; such themes seem now to be the domain of the crackpot in the street.  Likewise, The Da Vinci Code also holds fast to the tenet of the conspiracy, albeit in a less arcane and more immediately compelling way; I am not sure I can think of or imagine conspiracy forming the backbone of a major modern novel in a way that it did in FP and TDVC.  Am I wrong to conjecture that we are more cynical people now and we tend not to believe in things that are not material and individualistic?

Our most recent book group discussion culminated in our first ever unanimous agreement in twelve meetings that we had all enjoyed the book, which was Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, about the Biafran War.  At my other, work, book group, someone asked what novels I would give ten out of ten to, as I had just done that with Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.  I could only remember 100 Years of Solitude, and I’d forgotten Half of a Yellow Sun, which is my other ten out of ten read.

So Americanah, Adichie’s next novel after HoaYS, had so much to live up to.  The subject matter is very different.  It’s a study of racism in North America, as seen through the eyes of Nigerian immigrant Ifemelu.  We see Ifemelu’s early life in Nigeria, where things could be a struggle financially, and her contrasting life as she works her way up the ladder in America, which is an experience not only financially difficult but socially so as well.

The novel is good, in a much more subtle way than HoaYS – there would have been little point in trying to write something that would better it on the same terms.  Taken together, I think the two books show what makes Adichie such a great writer, that she can get so meaningfully into the lives of so many different types of people.

Ifemelu’s boyfriend’s mother is a lecturer in Nigeria, and refers to Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter as being a great book, which incidentally I had just read a post about here: it seems that George Orwell didn’t like it.  Such a polarising book, of course, had to be investigated, especially as another recent strand in my reading is novels from the post-war era – Waugh, Mitford, Greene, et al, and I will include Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour in that list, even though it wasn’t published until 1981.  Someone asked me whether I read all the words in novels, since I get through so many, and it depends on the book.  For example, reading all the words was never going to be key to my appreciation or otherwise of Foucault’s Pendulum, as the whole novel basically boiled down to: Man hiding in museum – Flashback to man with his student-type friends – some conspiracy stuff with the history of the Templars – some investigations performed by the student-type friends – some dangerous pursuit-type activities between Templars and students – The End.

But I really enjoy the way that you generally have to read all the words in the post-war novels, where there is so much unsaid that you have to pick up from the construction of the sentences.  It’s almost like the difference between a time when paper was more expensive and more had to be said in a shorter space, as opposed to our times now when I often feel that the meaning of a book has been diluted down with too many words because publishers think that it will make for a thicker book that buyers will think of as better value for money.

I have to say that The Heart of the Matter was a very uncomfortable read in places, as the setting, an unnamed African colony, was so miserable and grim.  Nobody would be there by choice, so they were either there because they had to be, or because they had some chronic personal issues that caused them to choose to be miserable.  And then every so often, this hot, sweating fug of misery would be torn through by a really clear piercing image of the true awfulness of existence.  It was very memorable, if not exactly enjoyable.

Good Behaviour was my last example of enjoying reading every single word in a book, but that’s before I started The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota.   It’s not often that I read like I did when I was a child, with a compulsion to find out what happens to the characters, and with an enjoyment of learning about the world from their point of view, but I felt that very strongly.  The book is about three immigrants, legal and illegal, from India, and a British born young Sikh woman.  I thought the plotting was very well done, with all the characters’ motivations, which were often less than straightforward, well explored and then used to make them run into each other with dramatic results.  The ending was a little bit weak, however, and the writing style was adequate, if not inspirational, so this is not going to be another ten out of ten book – I’m still on the lookout if anyone has any suggestions!


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Review: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

It’s been ages since I posted.  I’ve been busy working, reading, writing and doing a bundle of school governance related tasks.

I’ve slightly lost count of who all my reading recommendations have come from, which is a shame, as I’d like to thank whoever thought that I would love A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson, because I did!

I wasn’t mad about Atkinson’s Life After Life, which I found a bit emotionally detached due to all the different possible lives its heroine, Ursula led – I didn’t have a sense of her as one distinct character.

I thought that the descriptions of the war were the best part of Life after Life.  A God in Ruins follows the story of Teddy, Ursula’s brother, in a more conventional narrative: what happens to him in the war, and subsequently, through marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood and old age.

Again, I felt a little frustrated at a certain emotional evasiveness, especially in the context of the war writing.  I’m not that experienced a reader of war writing, but of the books I’ve read, I’d say that Atkinson rates as one of the best, if not the best, at capturing the pathos of both war and death. (War and Peace, yes I know, it’s arrived and is sitting staring at me from the bookcase, all 900 tiny fonted pages of it.  We’ll see how it compares.)

By contrast, the strained relationships of the family members during peacetime seemed a little petty, and some of the characters, such as Teddy’s daughter Viola, were almost completely unsympathetic.

The other thing that Atkinson definitely does better than any other author I know is to convey the sense and wonderment of “What if…?” When I read Behind the Scenes at the Museum, I was totally blown away by the way she described all the things the characters  would never know about each other, heartbreaking juxtapositions of connections that would never be made.

Yet as I counted down the pages to the end of them book, I could feel myself appreciating these, thinking they were good, but feeling it still wasn’t quite enough…

… until I got to the end and everything came together and it was amazing.  I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.

I am going to go and do some more governor stuff, and finish laminating my pain au chocolat now.  I have tried these twice and am still trying to get them right.  Am mainly having problems with the butter leaking out and losing the layers.  The latest theory I have read is not to prove the dough before layering, and make sure the butter is not too hard, that way it won’t burst through.

We shall see…





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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Something that didn’t seem to exist when I did GCSE and A-level English Lit, is the “compare and contrast” question.  This currently seems to form a staple of my children’s essay writing experience, ie taking two authors/books with a tenuous link and sitting there stumped for hours working out how to segue them into one seamless commentary.

I thought about this over the last two weeks, when I found myself reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and then A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

Both were very long books (not unusual in publishing these days), and both had scenes in that I found too horrific to read to the end (quite unusual for me).

I can see why A Little Life divided critics.  It’s the story of 4 friends, from college age to middle age, focusing on one character in particular, Jude St Francis.

The opening is a bit slow; the four friends start out rather devoid of individual characteristics, and it is only slowly that we learn that Willem has a brother who died in childhood, and that something awful has happened to Jude in the past, from his physical and mental scars.

Once it gets going, the tension as Jude’s story is skilfully handled.  The slow revelations of his back story are almost unbearable.  Also, the story moves to focus on Jude’s struggle to live a normal life, and the extent to which his refusal to completely do so affect those who love him.

When I was fourteen, I read Deborah Moggach’s Porky, about a girl who is sexually abused by her father, and the terrible consequences it has on her ability to form intimate relationships as an adult.  I remember thinking, “Why is she behaving like that?  Why can’t she just do X?  Everything would be OK if she did that.”

I imagine that says something about one’s perception of how easy it is to change when one is young.  Would it have been easier for me to change myself at that age, or did I just think it would be, because I hadn’t experienced the difficulty of trying to break habits?

So I would disagree with what The New Statesman had to say about A Little Life, which was:

“Although it is not the job of fiction to educate, it is odd to foreground such extreme subject matter without wanting to say something new about it. And it is odd to read such an in-depth treatment of it and come away thinking: well, yeah, obviously.”


There was amazing tension in the question of whether those who loved Jude would ultimately be able to accept him, and as well as being more moved by the depiction of Jude’s abuse than almost any other book I have read, I was also moved by the struggles of those around Jude when they realised that they could not heal him as they thought he deserved to be healed.  I would say that this, in an age where every television programme is either written or edited to portray a positive “journey” counts as “something new,” or at least as a timely reminder.

I did, however, find two things about A Little Life very frustrating.  Firstly, it was unnecessarily long, with people meandering around doing utterly banal everyday things.  There was also too much repetitive and interminable piledriving home about what various people were thinking and feeling.

Also, after the big reveal about the culmination of Jude’s backstory, which ironically I couldn’t read, I rather lost interest in the book.   There was a noticeable lack of the character development you would expect to occur naturalistically over thirty odd years of the characters’ lives.  More fundamentally, I do like a traditional end to a story ie for all the decisions a character has made over their destiny to lead to a revelation, which is not the same as a solution or a healing, about themselves.  There was no revelation, and the events seemed to peter out into a series of happenings, leaking direction and purpose as they went.

Thank you to all of you who recommended Murakami books for me:-)

Following my underwhelmed reading of Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of the World, I found The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle much more satisfying because of the stronger “real” strand that ran alongside the surreal/fantasy strand.  Again, this was a book that was too long, although its problem was that it took a while to get going rather than going on too long.  It’s the story of Toru Okada, whose wife disappears, and his quest to get her back, which involves him meeting an oddball cast of characters along the way, and his encounters with various dangers and downright unpleasantness.

The straightforward narrative, which strangely had a similar theme to A Little Life, was essentially very simple, but made more mysterious and lyrical by the surreal quest.  I found that this made it a bit of an inside-out story, which, for those of you who know what happens in it, is not an idle comparison.


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Review: House of Cards

Not the American version, since I don’t have a spare 30+ hours on my hands, but the original BBC series that was first made when I was slightly too young to appreciate it.

House of Cards is set in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister in 1990.  It’s about the deceitful ambition of Chief Whip Francis Urquhart in the subsequent battle for power, and the attempts of young journalist Mattie Storin to find the real story behind the power struggle

I’ve always meant to watch it, knowing it was an iconic piece of television for Urquhart’s calculating evilness, his bold straight-to-camera addresses and for coining the phrase,”You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment,” which Urqhart uses to plant rumours without leaving a trace of himself behind them.

It was as elegantly done as you would expect.  I was surprised by how totally unredeemedly nasty Urquhart was, I think that is quite unusual, even in a villain. I was also sceptical about how easy it was for Urquhart to fool so many people without being discovered, but then, some of the politicians were of the nice-but-dim variety, which was probably fairly true to life in some cases.

I was much more surprised by the sexual relationship that developed between Storin and Urquhart, and its nature.  There was a point where she said, “I want to call you Daddy!” and I went “Urggggh!!!” out loud, and then started laughing.   Although this was after two nights without much sleep, by which time I was laughing at pretty much any stupid thing.  I can never sleep the night before I go back to work, and since I went back Monday and the teachers and pupils came back Tuesday, my brain interpreted both as going back to work dates.

Isabel didn’t go back to school until today, so she spent Tuesday doing her art homework, which was to take photos in the style of Martin Parr, who takes satirical photos eg of food next to photos of food.  Since she actually bothers with things like lighting and decent background, her photos are much better than mine.

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(She also had to make the garishly coloured cake.)

Talking about photos of photos, and photos “in the style of”, did anyone see the news story about Richard Prince, the photographer who’s being sued for “re-photographing” other people’s Instagrams?  And being paid $100,000 for his “works” too?




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Review: Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

Following her birthday present of, Love, Nina, Nina Stibbe’s warm and hilarious memoir about being a live-in nanny for LRB Editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, my sister gave me Stibbe’s comic novel, Man at the Helm for Christmas.

Love, Nina was superb, tart, observant comedy genius, so Man at the Helm had a lot to live up to and on paper, I wasn’t sure it was going to work.  It’s the story of two sisters and a brother, whose parents get divorced in the early seventies, and their subsequent move to a rural village, where single parenthood is still viewed as a curious thing.  The goal of the children is immediately to find another man for their mother to hook up with, and also to integrate themselves into village life.  The tone of the nine year old girl narrator is darkly knowing, and the first few chapters veer through a set of experiences which might have others in therapy for a good chunk of the rest of their lives.

The children are towers of strength and sense for the useless adults around them and go around trying to organise life the best they can, in the manner of I Capture the Castle.  It’s verging on unbelievable to think that a nine and ten year old could do the things that they do, but the events and tone are so funny that I skated over this aspect of the book.

Later on in the book, as the mother’s situation unravels further, the book does become a bit darker, and the emotional implications on the children are explored further, and I was reminded of a line from a Muriel Spark book where the narrator describes her treatment of a situation as being “with a light and heartless hand, as is my way when I have to give a perfectly serious account of things.”  The novel skilfully captured the financial pressures, the social isolation and the loneliness of single parenthood just as well as any “serious” novel I have read on the subject (which is not that many – it’s not a very glamorous subject to write about.)  There were some passages that made me cry, remembering some of the low points of what it was like for our family in a similar situation.  I don’t like thinking about those times much, I was just so badly equipped for dealing with life, never mind life alone with two small kids.

Talking of families, my kids (now bigger) let me take a photo of us all together for the first time in years and years:


My daughter had to point out that I was holding the camera too close the first time round:





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Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

I’ve got one day of holiday left before I go back to work and I’m feeling sad that I’m not going to have as much time to read as I have over the last two weeks.

My reading really slowed down during November and December, partly due to life getting very busy, but also partly due to me struggling to read the Jamaican gangster/politics novel A Brief History of Seven Killings over a whole month.

Despite having totally clogged up my reading schedule and feeling like the longest book I’ve ever read, I do think it’s a worthy Man Booker winner, as it transports you to a different world, and it’s such an amazingly complex construction of so many lives.  I was very glad to come across this timely article from the LRB which explains how the fictional political shenanigans map onto real life, and pretty much provides a far better ad more comprehensive critical run down than I ever could.   I haven’t been so much in need of a “York Notes” style crib sheet since reading To the Lighthouse for A-level.  (Although the York Notes for TTL were rubbish – I still didn’t understand it afterwards.)

I think it’s no coincidence that Brief History and To the Lighthouse are both written using the stream of consciousness technique.  I’d read about people having trouble getting through Brief History because of the style, so went into the first chapter having decided to try to “immerse” myself in the feel of the words rather than worry about what every single thing meant.  I think I came out of the experience not too badly, and actually quite exhilarated by the high adrenaline opening action.  It was just a bit much to realise that, after all that effort and self-congratulation, I was only about 2% through the book.  Since about 95% of published books follow a rough format regarding plot and character developments, I can quite often read books very quickly by working out what each of the sections maps to.  It just wasn’t possible with this book, part of the Marlon James had in writing it was how unconventional the plot and character developments became.  In the end he said that he just had to go with the way the book was going.

Reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride a few days ago reminded me of how well I thought the voices in Brief History were done.  There was a sliding scale through the characters from standard English, through standard English with a lot of Jamaican slang, to really very difficult to understand patois.  The voices seemed very authentic and therefore to have a point, whereas I am still not sure what the unusual voice in Half-Formed was supposed to signify.

Brief History was also refreshingly funny.  A lot of the humour centred around the incompetence of some of the gangsters, but there was also humour in the attitudes of the different classes of characters towards each other.

I’m glad I read this, but I’m also hoping not to come across any similarly tough reading experiences in the near future.

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Jane Eyre: National Theatre

Happy New Year!

Isabel had friends round for New Year last night and when I came down for breakfast this morning, the Christmas Tree was on the kitchen floor like this:


It turns out they’d knocked it over while they were arranging the front room into a sleepover shape.  There is some sort of teenage girl logic (they like things to be organised) to putting it all neatly back together on the floor, when actually, heaps would have been just as easy to get back into the box.

It’s been a few weeks since I took Rhiannon to see the National Theatre broadcast of Jane Eyre, which she is going to study for A-level.  There is going to be an encore broadcast at a few venues around the country, so I thought it might be worth posting about how good it was.

I hadn’t thought too much beforehand about what the production would be like, but as the actors stepped out onto a bare IKEA-esque double level stage, it suddenly occurred to me that these 7 adults were going to try to recreate the wilderness of the windswept North, beginning with a long childhood sequence, and that seemed an intriguingly long way from where we were at.

The actors did an amazing job of using their voices and bodies to do this.  Both of us thoroughly enjoyed the production – more so than the Streetcar broadcast we went to see last year.  Although similar in length, this seemed to go by more quickly, and I enjoyed wondering “I want to see how they are going to do that bit,” as the scenes rolled by.

I was 11 the first time I tackled Jane Eyre and there was an unfortunate consequence to reading it at such a young age (this is very embarrassing.) I was so into the characters that I thought that it would be a good idea to start behaving like an unholy amalgam of Jane Eyre and Helen Burns, and this was very annoying and made me unpopular with my peers.

The good thing about watching this play was that the adult interactions now made sense to me.  As a child, I couldn’t understand why Jane didn’t tell Mr Rochester to get lost.  I still have no patience with the idea of the troubled, brooding type, but now I could clearly see the idea of connection, and of the specialness of needing the person you feel connected with.

Also,  I’d always assumed that I never did finish the book, because I couldn’t remember what happened at the end.   I must have blanked out the scenes where Jane ran away and went to live with the missionaries, because I realised that the scenes were familiar ones as I watched.  Again, I think I blanked them out because they made so little sense to me.  They still trouble me on one level – Jane has been so determined to be self-reliant throughout, would she really head off into the countryside with no plan as to what she would do, to the extent that she nearly dies?  On a psychological level, it does make some sort of sense, maybe signifying how low she feels etc, and it’s also a way of Jane experiencing a contrasting life and realising how important all the things she really needs are.  I just find it unsatisfactory that she becomes more passive towards the end of the book.

If Jane Eyre is on near you, it’s well worth a watch.  The interval backstage piece is also very informative.