Wednesday 24 April 2019

The Age of Reason, Jean-Paul Sartre

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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.

Pick up a copy:

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.

Tuesday 2 April 2019

In Celebration of Children’s Books

Today being International Children’s Book Day, and having been inspired by other bloggers reminiscing about their favourite childhood reads, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to celebrate the wonder of children’s books that have inspired generations of readers. The problem with this is that there’s so many wonderful stories that it’s too hard to pick just a few. I realised when thinking about it that most authors were firm favourites, not merely individual books so this is going to be as concise a rundown as I can manage for some of the authors that brought joy to my childhood.

A.A. Milne
It will come as no surprise that the Winnie the Pooh stories captured my imagination. They are sweet and thoughtful and the characters have endured throughout the years. The marriage of Milne’s words and E H Shepard’s iconic illustrations is truly one of the great creative partnerships.

Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter’s beautifully illustrated child sized books bring the animal world to life. The stories are simple but memorable and for children that like to collect a set her books are the perfect choice. I also have a huge amount of respect for Beatrix Potter herself, a talented artist, and determined and self-possessed in a world that wanted to keep women down.

Sheila Lavelle
It was only in checking the author’s name that I realised I loved several of her books without ever having realised they were written by the same author. The standout book for me was Ursula Bear, about a girl who turns into a bear when she eats certain food and repeats the magic words but then isn’t quite sure how to change back. I was also fond of her My Best Fiend books. Not an author you see on the shelves much these days, but great books that really capture the imagination.

Enid Blyton
From Noddy to the Famous Five to Malory Towers, Blyton led me through several phases of my childhood. Full of adventure and fun, her books have wide appeal. How can you read a Famous Five story and not want to pack a picnic and go on an adventure?

Jacqueline Wilson
For slightly older children Jacqueline Wilson provides stories that consciously include tales of a range of family circumstances, an original concept for children’s books when first published. She has written some books for teens so you can grow with her. She tackles difficult situations in an age appropriate fashion without sugar coating.

Roald Dahl
A staple of any child’s bookshelf, Dahl’s witty and sometimes outrageous books remain hugely popular. My favourites were probably Matilda and The Twits but you’re in safe hands with anything by Dahl (just don’t let your children get their hands on his adult books, they’re decidedly more sinister, but great reads). His creative relationship with Quentin Blake is another example of a perfect pairing. On reading Donald Sturrock’s biography of this most beloved author in adulthood I was filled with even more admiration for the man behind the stories.

Ann Jungman
Another less well read author these days, and one who again wrote several series I enjoyed. The one that has endured in my memory is Vlad the Drac, the tale of a miniature vegetarian vampire with a taste for washing up liquid. Along similar lines as Michael Bond’s Paddington books (which deserve a special mention themselves) but with a vampire causing havoc rather than a bear.

J K Rowling
I don’t think many lists of favourite children’s books/authors would be complete without a nod to JK. I feel very lucky to have been growing up when the Harry Potter phenomenon was in full swing, to grow up with the characters was a joy and each book felt like returning to old friends. I’m still waiting on that letter to Hogwarts…