Sunday, 21 July 2019

We of the Never-Never, Jeannie Gunn

In 1902 Jeannie Gunn, a teacher from Melbourne, moved with her husband Aeneas to Elsey in the Northern Territory. We of the Never-Never is an account of her year there. Her friends at home tried to dissuade her from going and the locals were less than keen to have a woman there, but with time her expectations changed and she threw herself into bush life, making friends and earning the respect of the indigenous people that educated her on the ways of life in the bush.

The tale is not one of high adventure but everyday life in a harsh landscape. The postman visits eight times a year and Gunn is impressed by his endless good humour and punctuality despite the hardships of his job – his predecessor died on his route. The way in which humans are beholden to the land, becoming trapped by the Wet or Dry alternately, is made abundantly clear. The misunderstanding of life in the bush by those in the South is commented on. They wonder how bush-folk fill their time little understanding the challenges of survival and the beauty of life there. ‘Speed’s the thing,’ cries the world, and speeds on, gaining little but speed; and we bush-folk travel our sixty miles [in three days] and gain all that is worth gaining – except speed.’

Having been written at the start of the twentieth century some of the language used can be offensive to modern readers, but there is a glimmer of modernity in her comments on the hypocrisy of colonialists who criticize the violence of the indigenous people while taking their land by force, not to mention the way in which they treated the captives brought with them.

An enlightening read on a way of life so different to that of a city dweller. Gunn is honest in her tales, including moments where she is laughed at and being open about how unprepared she was. During her year in Elsey she comes to have great affection for the land and its people and although I can’t help wondering if the locals would really have agreed with her including herself in ‘us bush-folk’ having spent only one year there, it nonetheless aids in telling stories that would otherwise go untold.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Circe, Madeline Miller

In Madeline Miller’s latest reimagining she takes Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, a character who fills only a few lines of Homer’s The Odyssey and puts her centre stage. An outcast among the gods for not being beautiful enough and the misfortune of having a mortal voice, she finds peace in her island of exile, Aiaia, but only when the gods allow it. Through her story we meet many famous characters – Scylla, Odysseus, Jason, and the minotaur birthed by her sister. Her story is in many ways a sad one but also one in which she proves her resilience and power.

Her separation from other divine beings gives her an appreciation of mortal values. She comments that they have to work hard to hone their skills but because gods are born with excellence they instead work on proving what they can destroy. They do not have empathy as mortals do, yet Circe does show some. Early on we witness the punishment of Prometheus, Circe alone takes pity on him. Penelope comments that Odysseus told her ‘that he had never met a god who enjoyed their divinity less.’ Her views on the division of mortals and gods is forged in her youth as she is rejected and abused by her kin, reinforced by her transformation of Glaucos from mortal to god and his simultaneous loss of love for her. At a number of points she seems to yearn for mortality. She envies the way mortal bodies have their history written on them, and that part of them doesn’t die but lives forever in the underworld, where she can never go. She shows us a different side to divinity and she is made to be more relatable to the reader.

The other main theme is that of the position of women. Even goddesses are seen as lesser beings. When nymphs are sent to Aiaia as punishment Circe reflects that having misbehaving daughters sent to her is preferable to sons, swiftly followed by the truth that it never would have been sons, as they are not punished. It is not merely moral expectation that is different but for females there is a very real risk of assault. Hermes jokes with her that nymphs always run screaming when he tries to take them to bed but that they are terrible at getting away. When sailors come to the island and realise she is alone, despite her power they try to rape her and hope to steal from her. This experience makes her more vengeful, turning dishonest men into pigs. In this way she takes back some control, although she acknowledges that she is always under the dominion of the gods.

Circe's story is told to us as a first person narrative and we experience the heartache and desire for control as her life goes through its many turmoils. At times it is hard to remember that the story unfurls over centuries, but unlike many of the other gods she seems develop emotionally over the years, making her a far more interesting protagonist. Not perhaps as gripping as I’d imagined it might be, nonetheless an interesting read that makes you think again about the mythology we’re taught in our youth.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer

Mortimer takes the famous quote from L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between ‘The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there’ quite literally as he leads the reader through the fourteenth century in the form of a travel guide. His argument for this style in the introduction is convincing but the execution leaves something to be desired. When he gets into his flow it is entertaining and informative but in large parts he slips into a more traditional form of historical narrative. Within this it can feel awkward and sometimes confusing as to which period he’s referring to when he suddenly jumps back to addressing the reader like a visitor. Nonetheless, if you’re after an overview of life in the 1300s you could do worse than picking up this book.

He discusses the strict hierarchical nature of society in England at the time with even the clothes worn being determined by social status. To be at the bottom of the class system meant being under the control of your lord your entire life. It was not just work and earnings they controlled but for villeins even who they married was decided by their lord with punishments being imposed if they did not gain permission or went against the lord’s wishes. Men’s status was decided by their work, for women it was their marital status, and even at the top they remained subservient to men. In an age far more violent than the one we inhabit women were in very real danger of assault and in the case of an abusive marriage they had no means of escape. It is clear throughout that the lot of women was hard but Mortimer does point out some advantages to their lower status. For example, in the case of a criminal couple the man would be hanged for his crimes whereas the woman could be excused by claiming she was merely acting under her husband’s will. It is also interesting to note that as the century progressed men’s clothing became more sexually revealing whereas women’s fashion remained with loose fitting garments.

Climate change being firmly on the modern agenda it was interesting to gain an insight into the disastrous consequences of it six hundred years ago. Temperatures dropped by one degree leading to crop failures, some of which never recovered, abandonment of villages as the land became unworkable, and eventually the Great Famine due to heavy rainfall.

Mortimer discusses the often scant sources available to medieval historians and gives the reader a glimpse into how historic knowledge is pieced together. He succeeds in showing how different life was but also makes the people living through it feel much more relatable and not all that different after all.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Van Gogh and Britain, Tate Modern

The Tate’s much anticipated Van Gogh exhibition showcases some beautiful work but falls into a familiar trap, trying to put Britain at the heart of great artists’ work. He spent almost three years in Britain before he had begun experimenting in paint, and although he may have been inspired by popular novels of the time and art by the likes of Doré that were inspired by the dark, dirty, crowded capital, the connection to Van Gogh’s signature vibrant paintings is stretched beyond reason.

It was a pleasure to see some of his earlier, darker works and the progression to his distinct style and remarkable use of colour. For years he had obsessed over painting working class subjects in mining villages and elsewhere. He walked remarkably long distances and often chose to live close to destitution. You won’t see much of his difficult, obsessive personal life in this exhibition however, where a concerted effort seems to have been made to avoid bringing in too many biographical details.

Starry Night Over the Rhone, lent by the Musée d’Orsay, is luminous, a painting one could happily stare at for hours, reproductions do not do it justice. Aside from the showstoppers lent by other museums and galleries there are also some beautiful examples from private collections. Although the main focus is Van Gogh there are many works displayed from other artists, Millais’ Chill October being a standout.

An interesting exhibition albeit with some areas that feel like filler content. The Tate has attempted to show how Van Gogh was inspired by Britain and then goes full circle by demonstrating his influence on British artists that followed. The framing may be weak but it is nonetheless worth it to experience the mesmerizing effect his works have on viewers.

Van Gogh and Britain is at the Tate Britain until 11th August 2019.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Rosmersholm, Duke of York’s Theatre, London 2019

Ibsen’s 1886 play Rosmersholm is rarely revived but in Duncan Macmillan’s masterful new adaptation we see how remarkably relevant it remains. After the death of his wife, Rosmer’s ancestral home lies dormant, her favourite room left to decay. Grief-stricken Rosmer (Tom Burke) has withdrawn from society, relying on the company Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell), his wife’s former companion. Their bond has grown strong and Rebecca has shared her radical views with him, allowing him to see the possibility of a world beyond the straight-laced, pious life he has lived in the dreary house he has come to hate.

On the eve of an important election Rosmer reveals to his sternly right-wing brother-in-law Kroll (Giles Terera) that he has lost his faith and begun to see the potential for radical change. Kroll is horrified and threatens to smear his name in the press if he comes out in favour of the opposition.  This is not the only time the use of the press to manipulate popular opinion is alluded to. Kroll explains that politics is too complex for the average working man and ‘so the papers sell them a lie that it’s actually very simple. That it’s not about facts, it’s about feelings’, and so ‘they get duped into voting against their own interests.’ In the current polarized political state of Britain where emotion has been ramped up to the extreme, this feels painfully pertinent for a play written over a hundred years ago.

Rebecca is an intriguing character – confident, intelligent, and holding herself to impossibly high standards, she is, as Kroll declares in disgust a ‘liberated woman’. Women do not have the vote, are not expected to take an interest in politics, and yet she can hold her own. Kroll may not like it but he does recognize her power, threatening to publicly embroil her in scandal.

The set design is beautifully realised. Rosmersholm gives the sense of claustrophobia and stifling history. At the beginning of the play it is in darkness, paintings covered but gradually it is brought back to life as Rebecca encourages the light back in and adorns the room with flowers. We come to learn of the importance of the building to the local community and the burden Rosmer has always felt living there. Events within do not only concern its inhabitants but all around it. This sense of being trapped in a system he can’t stand, the responsibility of the family name and its dark history that he can’t convince others to care about, ultimately lead him to distraction.

Rae Smith’s thoughtful designs create real atmosphere and extra punch to the closing scene. Atwell’s Rebecca is composed yet capable of high emotion. Wracked with guilt at the path events have taken, she is a troubled character. Burke plays a conflicted John Rosmer and Terera is brilliant as Kroll. An excellent production that is running until 20th July.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Ox-Tales: Earth

In 2009 Oxfam published four short story collections to raise money and awareness of their work. The first, based around the theme of Earth, contains stories by Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, Jonathan Coe, Marina Lewycka, Nicholas Shakespeare, Rose Tremain, Marti Leimbach, Hanif Kureshi, Jonathan Buckley, and a poem by Vikram Seth.  With such a varied and talented group of contributing writers there are certainly some treasures within. The theme is very loosely applied, more obvious recurring themes include death and relationships.

The book opens and closes with stories that feature famous names. The first, The Jester of Astapovo by Rose Tremain focuses on the stationmaster who looked after Tolstoy in his last hours. An interesting story about an event that previously I knew nothing of. The closing story from Nicholas Shakespeare weaves the story of a middle-aged African woman with the death of Marat. The president of her country runs a cruel dictatorship and so she aligns herself with Charlotte Corday, who took Marat’s life. It is an intriguing story that discusses how we embed our homeland in our identity and how even after we leave, it will always be a part of us.

In between you will find stories of struggling marriages, people who find themselves as outsiders of society, and parents struggling to connect. A stand-out for me was Boys in Cars by Marti Leimbach which discusses the difficulty for a child with autism to attend a birthday party. The resilience of his mother and his determination to try are movingly written so that you feel the struggle, even in such a short space. 

Overall a varied read. Not all the stories were entirely captivating but almost all will make you feel something.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Why Grow Up?, Susan Neiman

In this short book Neiman discusses the challenges of growing up and how society has created a world where growing up is no longer appealing. She looks back to the Enlightenment thinkers and their ideas that have become ever more relevant - the explosion of consumerism distracts us all with the desire to accumulate new toys while others make important decisions for us.

She talks of the difficulty that arises from constantly telling young adults that they are living through the best years of their life. Not only can this be distressing during what is in reality a challenging time but also ingrains the idea that there’s not much to look forward to in the rest of their life. Society glorifies youth and mocks and dismisses old age yet studies have shown that people generally become increasingly happy as they age. It is not only this false idea of carefree youth that makes it so hard for people today to feel positively about growing up but the lack of meaningful work with which to fill adulthood. Even manual jobs that have an obvious purpose and result become demeaning when forced to make products that are designed to fail. Planned obsolescence became popular in the mid-twentieth century and although having products that need replacing regularly keeps businesses running and people in work, it takes the satisfaction out of the job as well as having a hugely damaging impact on our environment.

The Enlightenment thinkers were convinced of the importance of the gap between how the world is and how it ought to be in our mental development. It is how we respond to this lack of moral justice that defines how we grow up. Kant believed that it takes courage to know that you won’t get the world you want but to not talk yourself out of wanting it. Neiman agrees with this, believing that we should hold on to the outrage of injustice even if society will label us as childish.

An interesting, accessible book that gives an overview of some of the major schools of thought on the challenges of ageing. It you are at the age of transitioning into adulthood you may find comfort within its pages and an understanding of why growing up feels quite so daunting. Whatever your age, there’s plenty to be gained from picking it up.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

‘Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.’ So begins The Blind Assassin, the next six hundred pages explaining the circumstances that led to this dramatic action. The narrative is slightly complex in form – split between the present with Iris as an old woman, writing her autobiography of sorts. This  is interspersed with contemporary newspaper reports and excerpts from The Blind Assassin, a novel published posthumously under Laura’s name. Within this one of the characters tells the other stories and as we progress through the book it becomes clear the lives of these characters reflect those of those within Atwood’s novel.

Laura and Iris grow up in a wealthy family, their father having inherited the family’s factory business after his brothers were killed during World War One. When their mother dies in childbirth it becomes clear Iris will be expected to take up the role of heir. In an attempt to save the business she is married to Richard Griffen, her father’s main competitor and seventeen years her senior. Married life proves itself unpleasant, Richard’s sister Winifred is always around, controlling the minutiae of Iris’s life. She soon realises her role is just to ‘open my legs and keep my mouth shut’. Their marital relations are a particular source of dread for her as Richard ‘preferred conquest to co-operation, in every area of life.’ When Laura is forced to live with them she makes no secret of her intense unhappiness and eventually Richard and Winifred have her institutionalized. Iris is refused access to her sister and no letters or messages get through. There are many secrets embedded in their history, subtly hinted at throughout. It is only in its conclusion that the reader is shown in full the series of tragic events suffered by the Chase sisters.

The book is firmly set against the historical events affecting Canada at the time it is set – labour relations between the wars, the Great Depression, the personal implications of war, and the social pressures and patriarchy that created such unhappy lives for our female protagonists. The newspaper clippings show how superficial public concerns were and highlight events that Iris hasn’t yet told us about. When she does fill in the gaps she points to the inaccuracy of some reporting. As for Iris herself, how far can we trust her version of events? She is writing for the sake of her estranged granddaughter Sabrina, relies on memories of events that took place decades earlier. She also shows us her ability to successfully conceal truths in the confessions she makes. In old age she is penniless, bitter, and reluctant to accept help. Her organizing the publication of The Blind Assassin turned Laura into a martyr and she has no time for devotees of her sister. In youth resentful of the constant need to look after Laura and in old age feeling as though she is still living in her shadow, it is not unreasonable to think she may embellish her story.

This is a hugely interesting book that deals with a plethora of issues both familial and universal. Carefully plotted to keep you wanting more, each strand captures the imagination and gradually reveals more insight into the characters and the world they inhabit. Criticised by some as too black and white, there’s little ambiguity over who you should be rooting for. Nonetheless, Iris and Laura are expertly crafted, Atwood shows the roots of their future in the passages on their youth. As for Winifred and Richard, their manipulations and scheming will make your blood boil. A fantastic read that I didn’t want to end.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Silver Week 2019

Today marks the end of Silver Week 2019, an initiative run by The Silver Line to help raise awareness of the isolation experienced by many older people and to raise funds to allow the charity to continue its excellent work. I thought, therefore, that this would be a good opportunity to look at some books with older people at their heart.

Three Things About Else, Joanna Cannon

Florence Claybourne is a resident at the Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly and relies on her lifelong friend Elsie to keep her sane and help her remember things. When an all too familiar face turns up it throws their monotonous life into disarray. A tender, heartfelt book that movingly demonstrates the challenges that come with being labeled ‘old’. Full review here.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old

Set in a care home in Amsterdam this book takes the reader through a year in
the life of one of its more lively residents. Not content to sit around comparing ailments with his neighbours our protagonist sets up the Old But Not Dead Club with a few of his friends. A humorous novel that isn’t afraid to deal with the big issues. Read the full review here. The sequel was published in English in 2018 and I’m looking forward to reading it.

A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon

George Hall has recently retired and is convinced he’s going to die of a cancer that doctors have diagnosed as eczema. A gentle look at the challenges of parenting adult children and adjusting to retired life.

Grace and Mary, Melvyn Bragg

Bragg’s Grace and Mary is a touching portrayal of a son desperately holding on to his mother as Alzheimer’s takes away her memories and sense of self. We see John struggle with guilt and grief as he attempts to care for his mother as best he can, reconstructing her life for the reader. The full review can be found here.

I haven’t read the following books but they are popular novels with older protagonists.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson

A few years back this book seemed to be everywhere, so it’s definitely about time I picked up a copy. Allan Karlsson escapes his care home just before his hundredth birthday party, thinking he’ll see how far he can get. He soon finds himself embroiled in far more than he’d anticipated and being followed by both criminals and police.

These Foolish Things, Deborah Moggach

Possibly better known by the title of its film adaptation, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, this book follows a group of British retirees to a residential ‘hotel’ in Bangalore. It promises to be an amusing, relatable story.

If you have a favourite book that focuses on the older generation let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Hired: Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, James Bloodworth

For six months, James Bloodworth went undercover in low-wage jobs around Britain to experience first hand the uncertainty and hardship caused by the current ‘gig economy’, a phrase that he derides for the positive spin it puts on exploitative work models. He acknowledges that he is something of a tourist in these industries, that although he lives in the squalid conditions many workers are forced into he always knows there’s an end point and money in the bank. Nonetheless, it gives a voice to those without the luxury of time and comfort to write a book. It is an eye-opening account of the appalling conditions of workers across the country and a reminder that our use of cheap and convenient services such as Amazon and Uber perpetuate this uncertain job market.

His first job was in an Amazon warehouse in Rugeley in which all staff were on zero hours contracts and conveniently ‘released’ (their word for firing, part of a wider language used to mask the reality of shocking treatment) before they reached nine months and a permanent contract. They were regularly underpaid and fobbed off by the agency who recruited them and consistently treated them with disdain. The working conditions were exhausting and unrelenting – a half hour lunch break fell far short when considering time taken to get to the canteen and through security. Their actions were constantly monitored and they were penalized for too much time idling (including toilet and water breaks) as well as being disciplined for taking a day off sick.

The local community were disgruntled by the outcome that Amazon’s arrival had created. They were promised local rejuvenation but in reality locals did not take jobs at the warehouse. The largely Eastern European workers were shocked that Bloodworth, an Englishman, would choose to work there. People knew the working conditions were substandard and were reluctant to put up with it. It was known that the workforce was largely made up of migrant workers but it was not their presence they were upset about as much as the town’s declining prosperity.

Next he tried his hand at being a care worker in Blackpool. What he discovered was that it was surprisingly easy to get such a job and that the training was inadequate. Most staff were on zero hours, minimum wage contracts and worked long hours often without a break. Bloodworth was clear that it is not a lack of genuine desire to help on the part of the carers so much as unrealistic expectations or insufficient training that led to low levels of care.

Between 1979 and 2012 the amount of NHS and council provided nursing home beds fell from 64% to just 6%. Privatisation has resulted in the focus shifting to profit rather than care. The poor treatment of staff was harder to bear than at Amazon because of the knock-on effect is has on the ‘customer’. The tight schedule meant you weren’t able to just chat to them, something most of them craved. It also encouraged cutting corners as you knew any delays would cause a backlog for the rest of the day.

His third job was working for Admiral in a call-centre in Wales, and although the least offensive of the roles, there was nonetheless a sense of constant surveillance and a false sense of community spirit – enforced ‘fun’ and cringe worthy roleplaying and singing. There was also the intense boredom inherent in so many modern jobs and one of the most challenging aspects of such work.

His final foray into low-wage work was driving for Uber in London. A company that sells itself on the freedom its drivers experience soon proved anything but. The cost to the customer is set by Uber and the driver isn’t told the destination when a job pings through on their phone, meaning they can drive far out of their way for what ends up being a £5 job (less once Uber have taken their share). Drivers are also penalized if they reject too many jobs and are encouraged to stay out for longer and longer hours. They get no workers’ rights because technically they are self-employed yet have to accept work entirely on Uber’s terms. Bloodworth describes a feeling similar to that experienced when gambling, seeing how much you can earn in a day (although it often works out as less than minimum wage).

This book comes highly recommended and will open your eyes to the struggles of thousands of workers around the country. Bloodworth spends time getting to know people in the communities in which he lived and worked, providing a much broader view than his own narrow experience.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Looking for Alaska, John Green

Green’s debut novel follows teenaged Miles from his home in Florida to Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama. He is unpopular but mostly unconcerned by this, preferring instead to stay in and study. He chooses to leave home in search of ‘the Great Perhaps’ and instead finds himself embroiled in pranks and falling in love with Alaska, a fellow student who is intelligent and fun but also deeply damaged by events from her childhood which manifest in erratic behaviour. The chapter headings ‘… days before’ and then ‘… days after’ mean you know something big is coming and can fairly safely assume it’s not going to be anything good.

Miles is not always likeable but he does feel realistic. He struggles with his feeling for Alaska, isn’t sure what’s meant to happen when he gets his first blowjob, and finds himself changing his behaviour to fit in with his new friends. This seems something of a departure from his original introduction where he seemed less socially sensitive, but as he says, Alaska opened up a different side of him.

Alaska is well known in the school and although she has her rivalries is generally looked up to. She is an expert prankster, supplier of cigarettes, provider of sex advice, and generally loyal. She hides the pain that sits just below the surface for the most part but lets it shine through in passing comments, for example, when she claims they smoke for fun but she smokes to die. Eventually she does reveal her trauma but instantly shuts down any further discussion, suggesting she wanted her closest friends to know but hadn’t quite figured out how to deal with it. Perhaps she was asking for help, hoping somebody would see beyond the banter.

This is a book of contrasts. On the one hand it is a boarding school book with all the pranks and mischief you’d expect. On the other it makes you think twice and consider how we can never truly know even those closest to us.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Duo & Le Toutounier, Colette (trans. by Margaret Crosland)

* Spoiler warning - Le Toutounier continues the story of characters from Duo. This review will therefore contain some spoilers *

Duo portrays an uncomfortable time in the marriage of Alice and Michel as they try to navigate the difficult fact of her previous infidelity. They work together to put on shows and work is important to Alice as she was brought up with her sisters to understand the importance of earning their keep. The potential disintegration of her marriage therefore poses a double threat as it could also limit her ability to work.

The book doesn’t detail an explosive argument, instead we’re witness to the intensely uncomfortable days where they’re being overly careful around each other, admitting difficult truths and occasionally behaving spitefully. Their gentle breakdown is unbearable but contrasts to the suggestion that Maria, their servant, is being abused by her husband. There is also some subtle suggestion that there may be some force used between Michel and Alice too but it is never detailed. A theme that will continue into Le Toutounier is that of keeping up appearances and the toll it can take.

Le Toutounier follows on from Duo – Alice is still in mourning for Michel and has returned to Paris and two of her sisters, Hermine and Colombe. In some ways they seem close but it is also shown that they do not pry into each other’s lives. Even when Hermine bursts into tears during a meal they do not press her as to why, preferring instead to pretend nothing has happened. Both Colombe and Hermine have fallen for married men and almost envy Alice for having lost her husband to death rather than choice. This is clearly a callous opinion and Alice feels that her sisters don’t feel they can behave with her as they used to. They don’t discuss Michel’s death or the events preceeding it.

I found Le Toutounier a more absorbing read than Duo. The sisters’ relationship with each other is curious and their dalliances with married men are generally kept at the periphery until absolutely necessary to be brought to the fore, fitting in with the assertion that Colette was generally disinterested in her male characters. Their approach to sexual relations is not what you might expect – they do not crave marriage and seemingly feel no remorse for their affairs, at one point it is suggested that one takes pleasure in knowing the misery they cause. Colombe is nonetheless quite innocent and Alice always insisted on twin beds in her marriage, contradicting the bohemian lifestyle suggested by some readers.

Their cramped living conditions and financial struggles are an interesting insight into the lives of unmarried women in the first half of the twentieth century. An intriguing novella in which much depth is hinted at allowing the reader to fill in their backstories from the snippets Colette cleverly reveals.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

The Age of Reason, Jean-Paul Sartre

The first in Sartre’s Roads to Freedom series, The Age of Reason introduces us to Mathieu Delarue and his circle of friends in Paris, 1938. He is a philosophy teacher and obsessed with the idea of freedom, refusing to commit to his mistress of seven years, Marcelle. When he accidentally gets her pregnant he is forced to question his life decisions as he tries to raise the required sum for a relatively safe abortion. The action takes place over only a couple of days, a surprising fact to be reminded of when it feels so much has happened.

We never see Mathieu teaching but he does spend time with young students – Ivich who he loves and Boris who is so obsessed with youth he is convinced he will kill himself when he reaches thirty. They are immature and shallow and yet Mathieu clings to their company as a way of holding on to his now fading youth. His brother Jacques points out that his determination to retain freedom is really an attempt to escape responsibility and commitment.

‘I should myself have thought,’ said Jacques,’ that freedom consisted in frankly confronting situations into which one had deliberately entered, and accepting all one’s responsibilities. But that, no doubt, is not your view; you condemn capitalist society, and yet you are an official in that society; you display an abstract sympathy with Communists, but you take care not to commit yourself, you have never voted. You despise the bourgeois class, and yet you are a bourgeois, son and brother of a bourgeois, and you live like a bourgeois.’ (p.107)

In reality Jacques is little better than Mathieu. He lived carelessly and selfishly until the opportunity to marry into wealth presented itself.

There are not many likable characters in the book. Mathieu cares enough for Marcelle to try to secure a safe abortion but has not the presence of mind to ask if that is what she wants. Boris proves himself callous and foolish – believing a close acquaintance has died it is disgust rather than grief that he feels. Daniel manipulates Mathieu, refusing to lend money he easily could and attempting to trap him into marrying Marcelle. He plays with their lives for sport and although by the end seems to have gained something of a conscience, the solution he suggests foreshadows misery ahead.

An interesting novel set in a time of great turmoil for Europe with characters largely too wrapped up in their individual concerns to involve themselves in the wider world. War is at the periphery however and gives insight into some of the characters. Those reading the novel in their late 20s/early 30s will recognize the turmoil of transitioning into ‘the age of reason’ and it will make you question your own moral compass.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

The Scandal/Beartown, Fredrik Backman

*Spoiler alert - this review contains some details from the plot that may spoil parts of it*

Beartown is a small, isolated town obsessed with ice hockey. They finally have a junior team they believe will put them back on the map and encourage investment but then it all goes wrong. Their star player, Kevin, rapes the general manager’s daughter and the town’s residents are forced to confront their prejudices and question who they believe.

Backman deals with the issue masterfully. The attack itself is described but not in excessive, gratuitous detail. Instead we are told the odd little details Maya will remember later. Initially reluctant to report the crime to the police, knowing full well that the town will instantly take Kevin’s side, her sense of duty to protect others outweighs her own desire to pretend it never happened. Before the rest of the town find out what has happened the police make it clear that their default is to blame the victim, telling her what she should have done differently and giving her a greater degree of agency than Kevin, despite him being the older of the two. The reactions of the residents when it comes out are just as Maya expected – unforgivably violent and extreme. She proves herself strong while others cave under the desire to fit in, ignoring her suffering for the sake of themselves and the team. ‘Winners have a tendency to be forgiven here.’ The issues raised in this novel feel very relevant – victim blaming is rife in reporting on sexual assaults and the perpetrator’s prestige used as a vehicle for softer sentencing.

Backman builds up the hockey culture in the town so that we see how such behaviour is accepted and possibly even inevitable. We are told numerous times that when pumped up the players would kill if their coach ordered it. They are disruptive and disrespectful at school – a symptom of the mindset drilled into them for the sport that nobody teaches them how to switch off when they’re not on the ice. The adulation laid on them for their victories is addictive and they will do anything to feel it again.

There’s also a sense that the town doesn’t foster respect for women and that there’s a culture of silence and shame for them. There is no female hockey team despite a number of characters being talented players. Women and girls are not expected to take an interest in the game itself as much as the players, although when they do they are seen as sluts. Kira, Maya’s mother and a successful lawyer, is judged for going out to work full time, her husband mocked for her strength and earning power.

The role of parents is also an interesting aspect in the book. Kevin’s mother has always covered for her son, making it so he is never held accountable for his actions. His father threatens those who could reveal the truth and attempts to bribe them. Maya’s parents don’t communicate well with each other and don’t question Maya when they can sense something is wrong – they are too concerned about being uncool and overly involved. There’s also some parents that make huge sacrifices to support their children and ultimately they make the right decision.

An excellent read that deals with a difficult issue sensitively and intelligently. Don’t be put off by the hockey framing, it is much more about the morals of the characters and how opinion and behaviour is formed.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

The Peak District

Lichfield Cathedral
As Spring gradually awakens the slumbering flowers the desire to be outside enjoying this beautiful planet grows ever more insistent. A walking trip to the Peak District proved not only to satisfy this but also to reveal some literary gems along the way.

Never one to turn down the chance for some exploring en route we stopped at Lichfield with its medieval Gothic cathedral, slightly red-tinged sandstone that is now layered black through age, it is an intimidating, atmospheric sight with storm clouds overhead. Damaged during the Civil War, much of what now stands is Victorian reconstruction work. From the inside you can see where the walls bowed in an attempt to restore the original stone roof that was abandoned in favour of lighter material. There are still some original features however – a thirteenth century wall painting was discovered during the nineteenth century. The Lichfield Gospels, often referred to at the St Chad Gospel, is on display and contains the first known example of written Welsh. It has been digitized to allow visitors to browse without damaging the original.

YHA Hartington Hall
Our base for the trip was YHA Hartington Hall, a beautiful seventeenth century manor house which has been modernized but maintains some original features. It makes for a great budget choice.

View from the Roaches
With so many walks to choose from it can be hard to know where to start but we finally settled on a circular route around the Roaches. The first section of the walk was longer than anticipated but once the turn off came the terrain became much more varied (and when the route instructions say it can be muddy they really mean it – it tries to suck your walking boots right off your foot). After an incline leading to some impressive views you descend into woodland to find the striking Lud’s Church, a moss covered cavern with yet more mud to squelch through. Not only an interesting feature on the walk but steeped in history as it is thought to be the Green Chapel in the Middle English tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Rockhall Cottage camouflaged in the rocks
On leaving the woods you make the final ascent to the Roaches and are rewarded with panoramic views, the hulking rocks almost appearing as guards in the distance. On the descent you pass Rockhall Cottage, an atmospheric building emerging from the rocks and screaming out for some spooky creative writing set around it.
North Lees Hall

The next day involved a shorter walk. Starting in the village of Hathersage you follow footpaths out of the village and across fields towards Stanage Edge which dominates the skyline. A turn off from a country lane leads to North Lees Hall, thought to be the inspiration for Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Owned by the Eyre family at various points throughout its history, there’s even rumours that a ‘madwoman’ was locked up there and later died in a fire, mirroring events from the novel.

The final bookish stop of the trip was a flying visit to Buxton where we discovered a wonderful second-hand bookshop and bookbinders – Scrivener’s. It is the perfect haven for bibliophiles, floor upon floor of books new and old, winding corridors and cosy corners in which to curl up with a book or two.