Sunday 28 June 2020

On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 Years Old

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After taking a year off from diary writing, Hendrik Groen is back with his amusing observations and deeply felt musings on some of life’s big questions. The Old-But-Not Dead Club are still going strong, although they have to come to terms with the need to recruit new members as their number inevitably dwindles. Hendrik stoically makes the best of his twilight years while also planning for his end.

He continues to mock the behaviour of certain of his fellow residents while admitting to finding himself falling into some of the same traps. There have been changes to the criteria for taking in new residents, meaning a steady increase in the average age and infirmity, making life more depressing for those still wanting to exercise their minds. Despite the emotional difficulty of the experience he continues to visit a dear friend in the closed ward. Grietje herself is always in good spirits but the other patients make for a sorry sight. ‘I can’t bear having to see the humiliation of it, and the helplessness.’ He perseveres nonetheless, proving himself to be a good friend.

Along with dwindling resident numbers they also have to contend with a change in director, who quickly proves to be no more amenable than their predecessor. The Old-But-Not-Dead Club pull off a political coup in dominating membership of the Residents’ Committee but have a fight on their hands when attempts are made to sideline their responsibility exclusively to social events. Hendrik offers some insightful thoughts on the running of the home, observing that many of the residents behave like children because they are treated as such. When considering why the garden is kept locked in winter and surmising that it’s probably because they don’t want responsibility for any residents freezing to death he offers this gem of wisdom – ‘There’s a big difference between wanting to be in charge, and wanting the responsibility.’ The book is littered with these moments of clarity amidst the humour and daily updates.

Toward the end of the year he begins to struggle to keep his spirits up and highlights the importance of good friends lifting you up when needed, refusing to allow the lethargy to set in. Determined to keep trying new things and not let inaction settle in their lives, the Old-But-Not-Dead Club make life worth living.

This sequel maintains the humour and entertaining characters from the first book but allows a little more space for dwelling on the challenges of life. This is balanced by yet more ambitious Club outings and hilarious accounts of their adventures. A wonderful book about growing older but with messages that are relevant at any age.

Pick up a copy: Foyles Waterstones

Sunday 21 June 2020

Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks

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Sacks’ interesting book on language use by deaf people was published in 1989, and although some of the realities have shifted since its publication, many of the misconceptions around sign language remain. The book is comprised of three articles edited into a book, meaning that there is some overlap between sections. It does nonetheless help to build your knowledge throughout so you always feel equipped for each section. The first section gives a brief history of the treatment of deaf people and the way attitudes have changed (and sometimes regressed) over time. The second is the most scientific, discussing the neurological changes that occur in native sign language speakers, and the importance of language acquisition at a young age. The final section is the easiest to get into for the general reader, discussing the protests at Gallaudet College to get a deaf president in post. It is the section where deaf culture is discussed the most and the discussion becomes less about science and more about people.

There have been debates throughout the past few centuries about the best way for deaf people to communicate. Prior to the eighteenth century deaf people we dismissed as ‘deaf and dumb’ and remained isolated. Abbé Sicard began to question why this was and Abbé de l’Epée became fascinated by the sign language used on the streets of Paris. He began to understand that there was more to it than mere pantomime, and this change in attitude paved the way for better understanding and opportunities. It came to be seen that using sign language rather than enforcing speech allowed for greater success and integration. Unfortunately, a lot of this progress was lost at the Milan Convention of 1880 when oralism was voted in as the best method. This meant deaf pupils were prohibited from using sign language, which hampered the development of students who had been born deaf especially. Since then it’s been a long and slow process to have the importance and validity of sign language acknowledged.

Research by the likes of William Stockoe, Ursula Bellugi, and Helen Neville have demonstrated that sign language meets all the criteria of language as well as being processed as such by the brain. Recognition of sign as a language helps in arguments against oralism and for the teaching of it in schools. Sacks also discusses the unique visual skills associated with those fluent in sign language and the naturalness of it to a developing child.

Gallaudet College is mentioned early in the book as a haven for deaf students to flourish. It comes as a surprise therefore to read of the less than ideal governance and exclusion of deaf people from the role of president. In 1988 there were week-long rallies against the appointment of a new, hearing, president. Sacks witnessed these rallies first hand and reports the peacefulness of the experience. He also discusses his own sense of otherness as everybody around him conversed in sign language, of which he knew none. His experiences that week made him appreciate the beauty and fluidity of sign language and inspired him to learn some himself.

This is an interesting read, but focuses more heavily on language acquisition than deaf culture. Despite some parts now being outdated, it is nonetheless a useful reminder of the struggles deaf people have been through to have their languages recognized and to be allowed to use them. It is shocking how recently some of these breakthroughs came. Sacks admits that he enjoys going off on tangents and has included these as endnotes – they are numerous and lengthy, which can distract from the main narrative. I found it easier to go back at the end and read them in isolation as there’s much to be gained. I would recommend this book but perhaps also to combine it with something focused more on deaf culture and some supplementary reading for a more up-to-date position.

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Sunday 14 June 2020

Crossing in Time, D. L. Orton

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This post is part of the ultimate blog tour for the novel. Thanks to the publishers and The Write Reads for providing me with a review copy of the audiobook.

Isabel and Diego’s relationship takes centre stage in this light sci-fi novel. They live through a time of huge global difficulty, nuclear war threatens and a deadly disease is spreading fast. It becomes clear that going back in time to mend their broken relationship is the only way to save humanity, even if it means risking their own lives. With both characters unreachable in different times and places, will they be able to save the day and find their way back to each other?

From the first time we see them together, in a chance meeting after years apart, we see how their relationship crumbled. Isabel blames Diego for letting her go after she had an affair, taking little responsibility for her own mistakes. When she goes back in time and meets a younger Diego who hasn’t met her yet, she spends her time lecturing him on how to put up with her own problems and inconsistencies, putting all the emphasis on his behaviour. In many ways she doesn’t come across as particularly likeable but the experience does at least teach her to see their past in a new light. Despite their problems, there is an undeniable attraction between them that always draws them together, whether it works out or not.

A recurring theme throughout is Isabel’s relation to men and their attempts at dominance and violence against her. From the opening, a dystopian world in which people are trading laptops for food and in which she has reluctantly come to realise she needs a gun, the men she interacts with all seem to have one thing on their mind, and they are a threat to her. Later, when she is alone and vulnerable, an anonymous attacker attempts to rape her, and, in a different way, her ex-husband tries to maintain dominion over her. He uses his position to force her hand in terms of her work and manoeuvres the situation so that she has to hand over all her research. Perhaps this goes some way to explain why she is so demanding of Diego, she sees it as a relationship she has some control over.

A sci-fi novel might seem like a good source of escapism at the moment, but there are certain parallels that are a bit too close to the real world at the moment. There are some brief mentions of climate change and the need to act, but more so is the pandemic rapidly spreading and the desperate hunt for a vaccine that hasn’t been corrupted. There are throwaway remarks about the possibility of shortages of supplies such as flour and toilet roll, the weak and incompetent leaders delivering the response, and the impact this will have on international relations as well as civil unrest. Everyone is also told to stay home yet many ignore the advice. This was an unexpected aspect of the book and it was strange seeing our own world mirrored so closely in fiction.

Overall, an average read - the plot doesn’t entirely make sense the whole time and the characters aren’t ones you particularly root for. Isabel is blind to her own faults and Diego speaks largely in platitudes and puns. There’s a lot of work around developing their relationship so if you’re after a fast-paced sci-fi adventure then this is probably not the book for you. The most successful aspects are the most human – the grief, the reaction to a broken relationship you can’t move on from, and the little quirks only one who loves you would notice add a sense of reality to the characters. The first in a series, there’s still a lot more to be uncovered.

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Sunday 7 June 2020

Lorna Doone, R. D. Blackmore

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Published in 1869 and set in the seventeenth century, Lorna Doone is Blackmore’s most famous book, and the only of his once popular novels that is still readily available. It tells the story of John Ridd, an Exmoor yeoman, and his love for Lorna Doone. The name Doone is met with fear and disgust by the locals, having been terrorized by them for years, they even killed John’s father. Lorna, however, rejects their way of life and wishes for the freedom to be with John despite other plans being firmly in place to keep her within the Doone family.

John narrates the tale, although does at one point pass the narrative over to Lorna. He speaks directly to the reader at times, giving glimpses of what his future looks like as well as little asides on his views and opinions which are not always endearing to the modern reader. He is however largely portrayed as kindly if a little vain and you do find yourself hoping that things turn out well for him.

It may be Lorna’s name on the title page but she is not often part of the action, being in large part the greatest dream of John’s heart, who is utterly enchanted from their first meeting. Some readers accuse her of being weak and overly compliant yet there are glimmers of strength within. For example, she tells John that the Doones are ashamed of their villainy in front of her. She must therefore have expressed her distaste for their behaviour, to hold some kind of power over her manipulative and uncaring relatives is no small feat. She is also resilient, growing up in violent surroundings with very little love shown to her, and then trying to fit into the Ridd family when there is a certain level of distance due to her social standing.

The novel is rich in descriptive detail and the landscape is brought to life in much the same way you find in a Hardy novel. Indeed, one of the reasons the local community turn against the Doones, aside from their violence and thievery, is the way they misuse their land. In many ways this is a moral tale, but one in which people are easily forgiven if they exhibit signs of kindness. ‘Everybody cursed the Doones, who lived apart disdainfully. But all good people like Mr Faggus – when he had not robbed them – and many a poor sick man or woman blessed him for other people’s money…’ Mr Faggus is a highwayman, but his involvement in the community and the occasional kind action allow him to be embraced by the very people who may well be his next victim.

This is a long book that could likely have been cut down while still retaining its appeal. For the moments where it drags however there are many more where you become completely absorbed in the story and the writing, which at times feels almost poetic. The Doones are brilliantly drawn villains and never fail to live up to their reputation. There are moments when the tale seems to go off on a tangent and you’re left wondering quite how you got there. Nonetheless, this is a great read with a dramatic, violent climax.

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