Posts filed under ‘european’

THE OPTICIAN OF LAMPEDUSA by EMMA JANE KIRBY

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby- see the Guardian’s Review – Was a very detailed and moving portrayal of North African boat people being shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, and some of them being rescued by italian passersby – one being the optician of the title.

The book details the impact on the optician and his friends across a full year after the rescue. In this way it gives some insight into what the actual story is behind the news headlines.

The bookgroup was very split on it. One half of the group, predominantly the women, thought it was great. A great insight into one persons experience of a tragic event and an insight into refugee issues. The other half of the group mostly men felt it didn’t deal with the issues at all. They also questioned whether it was actually non-fiction. Feeling imstead that really it was fictional in the sense that it was the journalist imagining what was going on in the head of the optician. Whereas the pro group felt it was the journalist describing what the optician had said to her, and it was real. It was actually what the optician was thinking.

I confess to being in the anti group. My problem was that I’m not sure what the point of it was. We have all seen the headlines a lot and I don’t think it takes much imagination to imagine what the events are really like behind those headlines. What impact it has on the people on the scene. I guess maybe some people don’t make the effort to do that, so maybe for them it will really help imagine what it is like to be involved.

For me I didn’t think it added anything. It certainly doesn’t change the political response, so I’m not sure what the point is of spending time wallowing in the pain and sorrow of tragic events like this, which you do reading this book. It does nothing to really change anything.

To me it feels a little bit self-indulgent to wallow in the sorrow of it when there’s nothing we can really do anyway. There are so many other tragic events in the world every day, many on a much larger scale than the migrant boat wrecks in the Mediterranean. You could easily write a book like this on the sorrow of malaria, diarrhoea, TB, or one of the various wars going on around the world, or just just any neighbourhood of extreme poverty. so why wallow in this particular tragedy in this particular place. it doesn’t seem to serve any particular purpose.

However, it is really well written and it does really take you there in a vivid way and gives you stories about the background and the lives of people involved, and their responses. It’s good to get that level of detail behind a headline.

My reaction to the optician himself was similar to my reaction to the book. I was a bit annoyed at his focus on the individuals. he seemed almost incapable really of seeing the bigger picture and seeing the complexity. Instead he was constantly complaining about ‘europe’ not doing something as if it’s obvious what could be done. The best example of this really was his desire to go back and rescue more when told they are all dead. he seemed vey naive, wilfully so.

A good thing though about the book was the description of post-traumatic stress, the impact on the lives of the optician and his wife, their sleep and so on. Although it was a bit frustrating. They didn’t seem like they sought help for all of that which was the obvious thing to do

Another thing that i found annoying about the book was its focus on the optician and the Italians. it really didn’t say much about what the African survivors went through in the 12 months after the rescue covered by the book. It did not go into at all the reasons why they left Eritrea. it really could’ve said a lot about this issue. It really is interesting and makes the Mediterranean boat people a completely different issue from the Syrians coming into eastern Europe and from the boat people in Australia and elsewhere.

However I think in the end the pro group probably won me over. I think a lot of my issues are criticising the book or something it was not trying to be. In particular it says on the cover that it is a novella. That is the author admitting that it’s a work of fiction. Also inside the front cover it says the book talks about the optician and not about all the other issues, that’s its goal. Those are the answers to me and the other people who criticised it. So I think i could recommend it to people who want an eyewitness account of what it’s like to be involved in those very tragic scenes that you see on the nightly news, but not to someone wanting a broad account of the issues behind those tragic scenes.

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July 20, 2018 at 3:59 am Leave a comment

A WOMAN IN BERLIN by ANONYMOUS

A Woman in Berlin is a first person account of one woman’s experiences, and the women she knew, of men in Berlin as WW2 ends.

A line used in the first couple of pages of the book sums up the view of these women – ‘better a Ruskie on top then an American overhead’. The line is essentially saying that when a women has only two choices, rape is better than death. The more of the book you read the better you understand the detail and meaning of that line, and how in some cases it wasn’t true.

Its a diary covering a few months in mid ’45 as Russian men take over Berlin street by street from the east, while allied forces continue bombing from the west.

As the Russians invaded thousands and thousands of women were raped repeatedly. We now know there was nothing unusual about these Russians. This is what all ‘conquering’ armies do everywhere and have done throughout history. But the book is unusual. It places the reader in the position of the women, a woman, experiencing this. It gives names and faces and feelings and life histories to the women dealing with these events, and tells you what they are thinking as it happens.

And deal with it they do. If you have to, how do you decide rape is better than death? how can you make such a decision? How much pain is bearable, will it be possible to live with the pain afterwards, and if so how? What are the consequences, will life just go on? The book is an amazing first person, written at the time, account of this scenario. One that has occurred in so many places, and so many times, in history, but is really if ever described, especially from a woman’s perspective.

However it is not limited to that one issue. It touches on gender politics more broadly. More correctly, it doesn’t just touch on it, it goes into a lot of detail and provides great insight into the the construction of the role of women. It also touches on all the questions that arise at the end of wars, including justice in relation to war atrocities, reconstruction after war, the role of the victors and the vanquished, the impacts on the defeated population, in particular the relationship between genders with the defeat.

One of the key reasons that the book is fabulous, and everybody in bookgroup enjoyed reading it despite the difficult subject matter, is that it seems incredibly 21st-century. Although it was written in 1945, by a woman who had grown up in the first half of the twentieth century, many of the attitudes in it seem very sophisticated and 21st-century. As if it was written today in 2018. The way she talks about war, women, politics, education and class all seem entirely contemporary to 2018.

The other reason we all loved it is that the author has such a clear voice. I think the best way to illustrate this, and just how 21st-century she is on all of these issues, is to provide a series of quotes.

Any minute I expect sublieutenant Anatol to show up as arranged. I’m worried because I suspect there will be a fight. Petka is strong as an ox, of course, and clean, but he’s primitive, uncouth – no protection. A sublieutenant on the other hand, ought to guarantee a kind of taboo, or so I imagine. My mind is firmly made up. I’ll think of something when the time comes. I grin to myself in secret, feel as if I’m performing on the stage. I couldn’t care less about the lot of them. I’ve never been so removed from myself so alienated. all my feelings seem dead, except for the drive to live. they shall not destroy me.

I have this repulsive sense of being passed from hand to hand; I feel humiliated and insulted, degraded into a sexual thing.

And this mass rape is something we are overcoming collectively as well. All the women help each other, by speaking about it, hearing their pain and allowing others to and spit out.

All I can do is touch my small circle and be a good friend. What’s left is just to wait for the end. Still, the dark and amazing adventure of life beckons. I’ll stick around, out of curiosity and because I enjoy breathing and stretching my healthy limbs.

Are there differences? Yes, substantial ones. But from what I can tell these distinctions are mostly ones of form and colouration, of the rules of play, not differences in the greater or lesser fortunes of the common people, which candy was so concerned about. And the individuals I encountered who were meek, subservient and utterly uninterested in any existence other than the one they were born into didn’t seem any unhappier in Moscow than they did in Paris for Berlin – all of them lived by adjusting their souls to the prevailing conditions. No my current gauge is an utterly subjective one: Personal taste. I simply wouldn’t want to live in Moscow. What oppressed me most there was the relentless ideological schooling, the fact that people were not allowed to travel freely, the absolute lack of any erotic aura. The way of life just wouldn’t suit me.

A man in the rathaus lobby was chiseling away at the relief of Adolf. I watched the nose come splintering off. What is stone, what are monuments? An iconoclastic wave such as we have never seen is surging through Germany. The new twilight of the gods – is it remotely possible that the big Nazis could ever rise again after this? As soon as I have freed my mind a little I really have to turn my attention to Napoleon; after all, he too was banished in his day, only to be brought back and glorified once more.

Incidentally Nikolai doesn’t think there will be inflation or a new currency – I asked this morning. He thinks the money we been using will stay in circulation for the time being, but that the banking industry will be overhauled and drastically simplified. ‘Probably socialised right’? I asked. No, he said ‘not that. These are completely different conditions’. And he changed the subject.

We took advantage of Herr R’s absence for a little female gossip. Ilse is a worldly, discriminating woman, very stylish. She’s travelled all over the globe. What’s her opinion on the Russian Cavaliers? ‘Pathetic’, she said, wrinkling her nose. ‘No imagination whatsoever. Simple minded and vulgar every last one, from everything I’ve heard around the building. But perhaps you had better experiences with your officers?’. No not in that regard’. ‘Maybe they have the latest in socialist planned economies but when it comes to matters erotic this still with Adam and eve. I told my husband that too, to cheer him up’. Then she says with a wink, ‘with food so scarce a poor husband doesn’t count for much. Mine is already getting a complex about it; he thinks that the red army with all its Lady killers really has a chance with us women’. We laughed and agreed that under normal conditions, 99 out of 100 of our worthy enemies wouldn’t have the slightest chance with us. At most this hundredth might be worth a try.

As I’m writing this I’m back in the widow’s apartment, where on spending the last night. It’s an orphans lot to wander, I suppose. The most better thing in the life of a single woman is that every time she answers some kind of family life, after a while she ends up causing trouble: she is one too many many, someone doesn’t like her because someone else does, and in the end they kick her out to preserve the precious peace. And still this page is smudged with a tear.

As you can see its just marvellous. Nevertheless because its so modern sounding questions about the authenticity of the diary have been raised.

I certainly understand the questioning. It seems hard to imagine a woman in that situation being able to abstract from her own situation to generalise so insightfully and articulately as she does. However its also impossible to imagine anyone inventing it. In any case, apparently these questions about authenticity have been dismissed by people who know other diaries of the era well – according to Antony Beevor’s intro to the edition i read – and he appears to be on such expert.

The fact that rape on a mass scale happens in war is not at all surprising. It’s repeatedly referred to in every account of every war that’s ever happened. What is novel about the book is that it’s the first hand account from a woman’s perspective. Normally these accounts are written by male historians years later so they are much less immediate, much less real in their impact on the reader, and really give no details at all of the women’s reactions – how they manage the situation. So the book is a new and interesting take on a really well known situation.

The other thing that’s interesting about it is that this woman’s perspective on mass rape is not just relevant to complete war and conflict scenarios it’s really the situation women have been in for most of history, in particular poor women.

If you imagine the life of a poor woman in the Roman Empire whether they be slaves or Roman they would’ve had no rights and the wealthy man in their lives could do whatever they like with them. Similarly in the Viking times, similarly mediaeval Europe, similarly with the aristocrats and peasants right through history. In the early days of the industrial revolution i imagine women having to resort to similar tactics as those described in the book to manage their landlords and the factory owners, and their rent collectors and foreman. Likewise in many hunter gatherer or other traditional societies i imagine the chiefs, priests and elders in many cases had little on no accountability and used that to rape whoever they wanted whenever they wanted.

The heart of the issue really is that in any scenario where there is no rule of law as we now call it, where there is no accountability, people will do appalling things as there are no consequences. People, specifically men, do appalling things if there is no figure of power figure that has the ability to impose consequences on the perpetrator. And if there is a power figure, or if that figure cannot be held to account, then he will do appalling things. So women throughout time have to find a way to manage that, as the author, and her neighbours, in the book did. Women have to do this whenever the social, cultural or legal barriers that impose consequences on the behaviour of men are weak.

I also think you can take a wider lesson from the story. There are no good people and no monsters. Someone can be good one minute and a monster the next, or good in one situation and a monster in another, and that applies to all of us. We should not be so arrogant to think that if we were unfortunate enough to find ourselves in a lawless situation that we would not be a monster.

One of the questions raised by the book is how did the author, how did anyone, survive these experiences and carry on. The book seems to answer that question with the quote I’d like to finish on. This quote seems to sum up the attitude of the author, and also of the whole war generation on both sides of the war. It perhaps provides part of the answer to how they were able to survive the war and go on to build the world as we know it.

‘Let’s just declare the whole thing over and start a new chapter.’

June 11, 2018 at 7:51 am Leave a comment

PHILOSOPHY THEME: MEDITATIONS and SOPHIE’S WORLD

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and Sophies world provided a really interesting way in to philosophy. They provided a way of answering the question asked by one bookgrouper which is – what is philosophy?

Sophie‘s world is a novel but it’s essentially a 101 on philosophy disguised as a novel, a young adult or teen novel at that. So it’s an easy read but at the same time a very scholarly and comprehensive history of ideas. Admittedly it is limited to the history of western ideas but as another bookgrouper said it even acknowledges that it’s a history of Western ideas not the rest of the world.

Interestingly, even though it was written back in the nineties and was a best seller back then it seemed quite up-to-date to me in terms of recent philosophy. For example it has a good attitude to the role the Arab world played in bringing Greek and Roman ideas back into the western world after a 1000 years. This is a common view amongst scholars today but i thought it had only become common very recently.

Similarly its a very clever example of meta-writing, a book about a book, which is definitely a much more recent phenomenon than the 90s. Unlike practically all the recent examples of meta-writing, such as recent bookgroup read Commonwealth, it uses that device for a purpose, not just to confuse/entertain. It uses it to illustrate one of the most fundamental questions in philosophy – which is how do we know what we know? How do we know we are not living in a virtual reality matrix like Keanu Reeves.

It is one of the oldest philosophical ideas out there – that we are just dreams, or characters in a computer simulation. In this book the example used is that we may all be characters in the book written by somebody else. Half way through the book when you are well and truly bought in and identifying with the main characters they turn out to be exactly that – characters in another book. This has been an underlying theme in philosophy for thousands of years. So its very clever to find a clear and effective way to communicate it.

Overall i thought it was fantastic. Comprehensive and scholarly, while also being very brief. It covered a number of the schools of thought in the history of philosophy that I haven’t read much about and seemed to do a great job on them. It also covered the ones i did know and did them very well. It was also really interesting the order it put things in and the selections it made of which aspects of each big thinker it chose to pick out and focus on.

The most impressive thing about it was the way it used the novel form to illustrate the most difficult ideas. I have mentioned how it uses what critics now call meta writing to illustrate the idea popularised by the movie the matrix. That was a great way to illustrate a difficult idea but its not the only example. Marxism is also beautifully illustrated in a similar way and quite a few others.

I have to confess though, perhaps one of the reasons i liked it was that it confirmed my prejudices about different types of philosophy: 20 century French philosophy was a waste of space; as was 19th century German philosophy; and really Hume and Locke back in the Scottish and English enlightenments were the ones that got it right.

I was also very pleased, and surprised, to find that the book finished with modern physics and cosmology, and also that it included a lot of Darwin. It is not obvious that this would be the case in a philosophy book but it is very impressive that it was and more philosophy writers should follow the author’s lead in this.

Science has taken over a great deal of the work for that was done by philosophy. This was beautifully illustrated in the final few pages of the book where it talked about modern cosmology directly replacing and removing the idea of alienation due to the Copernican revolution. Philosophers for centuries have been saying we are all lost and angst ridden since Copernicus told us we were not the centre of the universe. Modern cosmology tells us we are literally made of stardust. The book argues that this told us we are part of the universe again. I also thought that chapter was really up to date even though it was written along time ago now back the 90s.

If updated today it could add a chapter on neuroscience. The book spends a lot of time talking about rationalist v materialist philosophers. This could be augmented by a chapter on the new neuroscience, with the idea of the biological brain. This science really does away with Descartes Freud Plato and all the other non-materialists.

If I had a disappointment with the book it was that it included quite a few pages on Freud which was completely unnecessary and pointless given what we now know about Freud. But perhaps in the ‘90s Freud still had some currency so maybe we should give the author some slack on that front.

Another quibble you could have with the book relates to the ending. Alberto and Sophie are the two main characters, the book takes us on the full journey through philosophy with them, and in the final chapters they embark on an epic existential struggle to become real, to escape from just being figments of the imagination of the author. But in the end they just seem to give that up and accept that they belong to an imaginary world of other famous literary characters – red riding hood, mother Hubbard, Batman etc.

As i read this it seemed like a cop out. It seemed like the ending was pure fantasy and step away from the philosophical journey that was the whole book up to that point. However on reflection it’s perhaps the perfect ending for the book. We began in Greek antiquity with Plato and his ideal forms that supposedly existed in a separate world, and our world just contains echoes or reflections of the perfect chair, the perfect tree etc. A world of iconic literary characters living in a non-material plane is literary Platonism. So you could argue it was really the perfect way to conclude the book – bringing it full circle.

Marcus Aurealius’ meditations were very much the opposite end of the spectrum of philosophy. This type of philosophy is not concerned with big questions like who are we or how do we know something is true, but with how we should live.

It was all about doing the right thing in deed and thought. In that sense it was much more practical than Sophie’s world. I was surprised how practical and familiar its ideas were. We were saying in the group that everything in it is quite recognisable from the era of our parents, the depression generation born in the ‘20s and ‘30s. It was full of the things that they would say – like everything in moderation; be nice to one another; be a good citizen; be thankful; dont boast or abuse people.

All very sensible and obvious you might say but it is remarkable to see that they were all written down so clearly over 2000 years ago. And not only that but by a Roman Emperor. The Roman Emperor has no reason to treat people well or behave well in any way, and most of them didn’t. That this guy chose to not only think about it, but write about, and presumably live it, is both mysterious and extremely impressive.

March 23, 2018 at 11:41 am Leave a comment

IAN McEWAN – BLACK DOGS and THE CHILDREN ACT

Bookgroupers all really loved both books. we now understand why Ian McEwan is so famous and such a darling of the literati.

Although both are fabulous there are some differences. For example, the point of view of the narrator is very different: Black Dogs is written in the first person and The Children Act written by an  omniscient narrator. However, this basic difference is masked by McEwan’s skill. In both books he is able to constantly switch between the point of view of the narrator and the point of view of whichever character he is speaking of at the time without losing the reader. He is able to mix together, and switch between, detailed accounts of the state of mind of each character as they experience the events depicted, and astute observations about architecture, politics, science, history and religion, without ever making you wonder ‘who is speaking now’, is this him or the character?

 

black dogsBlack Dogs is deceptively named. It is not a novel about depression as you might be tempted to think from the title. Rather this review gives the key quote from the book that shows these metaphorical black dogs are much older than Winston Churchill’s. This wikipedia quote gives the right reference

A black dog is the name given to a being found primarily in the folklores of the British Isles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil or a Hellhound. Its appearance was regarded as a portent of death. It is generally supposed to be larger than a normal dog, and often has large, glowing eyes.[1] It is often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck’s appearance at Bungay, Suffolk),[2] and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways.[1][3][4]

The origins of the black dog are difficult to discern. It is impossible to ascertain whether the creature originated in the Celtic or Germanic elements in British culture. Throughout European mythology, dogs have been associated with death. Examples of this are the Cŵn Annwn,[5] Garmr[6] and Cerberus,[7] all of whom were in some way guardians of the underworld. This association seems to be due to the scavenging habits of dogs.[8] It is possible that the black dog is a survival of these beliefs. Black dogs are almost universally regarded as malevolent, and a few (such as the Barghest) are said to be directly harmful. Some, however, like the Gurt Dog in Somerset and the Black Dog of the Hanging Hills in Connecticut, are said to behave benevolently.

At one level its a plainly told depiction of the history of the relationship of a middle aged man’s elderly in-laws. Not promising material you might think, especially as Bernard and June are not particularly extraordinary individuals, and their breakup was not particularly tempestuous or dramatic. Yet the novel is compelling at the level of the characters’ inner lives, and at the level of very big grand ideas.

He manages to extract from the process of minutely detailing the specifics of their personal stories, and the everyday feelings of these two fairly ordinary people, an excuse to beautifully articulate the real human truth, and complexity, of many of the biggest issues there are.

Via Bernard he describes war in the freshest and most truthful way i have ever read: in less than half a page. He does this in context, so it does not come across as an erudite aside in which the author has inserted himself into the story just to have a rant about some issue. it appears to come from the inner life of the Jeremy, the narrator, as he reflects on the experience of Bernard meeting the locals on his honeymoon walking tour through post war rural France, and is all the more powerful for that

 war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than anyone could ever begin to comprehend; a weight borne in silence by hundreds of thousands, millions, like the woman in black for a husband and two brothers, each grief a particular, intricate, keening love story that might have been otherwise.

The truth about organised religion he dispenses with in a few lines from June.

I suppose all the great world religions began with individuals making inspired contact with a spiritual reality and then trying to keep that knowledge alive. Most of it gets lost in rules and  and practices and addiction to power. That’s how religions are.

The complexity of our attitudes as humans to a logical rational way of making decisions and behaving versus a more emotional or intuitive approach, seems like a fairly arcane issue for a novel. Perhaps more suited to a philosophy text. But McEwan proves otherwise. This is the issue at the heart of the book. He does not try to encapsulate it briefly anywhere, rather he draws it out across the whole book. He contrasts the attitudes of his two protagonists, and also inserts his narrators thoughts and feelings via both the questions the narrator asks each of them, and the way he describes his own actions. Its beautifully done. I found it very revealing. It made me think and articulate my own approach to making decisions and thinking.

in contrast to rationalism v mysticism, sex is not a surprising thing to find in a novel. However, McEwan even finds  way to make this new, to give us fresh eyes to see through. He does this through June, speaking as an elderly woman he has her describe the attitude of herself and her girlfriends to sex before she met Bernard back in the 1930s.

We used to huddle up and talk about it a great deal. If you were going to be married sex was the price you must pay. After the wedding. It was a tough bargain, but reasonable enough. You couldn’t have something for nothing.

‘And then, everything changed. Within days of meeting Bernard my feelings were . . . well, I thought I was going to explode. I wanted him, Jeremy. It was like a pain. I didn’t want a wedding or a kitchen, I wanted this man. I had lurid fantasies about him. I couldn’t talk to my girlfriends honestly. They would have been shocked.

The final big issue he manages to deal with is capitalism v communism. As long term leftie I have always found it hard to understand why so many of the older generation of left leaning political activists continued to support communism well into the 50s and 60s. Long after the deaths and killings had become well known. This book, for me, explained for the first time, through the vehicle of Bernard and June, why so many members of their generation, the ‘great generation’ born in the 20s or 30s, remained attracted to communism for so long.

the routing of fascism, class struggle, and the great engine of history whose direction was now known to science and which had granted to the Party its inalienable right to govern, all merged to one spectacular view, a beckoning avenue unrolling from the starting point of their love, out across the vast prospect of causse and mountains which reddened as they spoke,

children actThe Children Act is aptly named being about a high court judge dealing with family law issues as outlined by The Guardian. The story about betrayal and duty, both in love and at work. It is largely told through the eyes of Fiona: the judge of the family court specialising in child protection. She begins as the duty bound and self righteous betrayed, and slowly transforms into the confessional and repentant betrayer.

It’s beautifully written and wonderfully observed, full of complex realistic characters in the middle of personal, legal and moral questions with no easy answers.

Fiona’s husband, understandably, wants ‘ecstasy. Almost blacking out with the thrill of it. remember that? I want one last go. Even if you don’t. Or perhaps you do?’ Whereas Fiona ‘could think only of disruption, assignations, disappointment, ill timed phone calls. The sticky business of learning to be with someone new  in bed, the newly devised endearments, all the fakery.

Fiona’s marriage is falling apart and reforming as her life at court gets consumed by yet another insolvable legal question. A lively and bright, young Jehovah s witness is dying of cancer and only a blood transfusion will save him. He is choosing to remain loyal to his faith rather than to remain alive. But he is under 18 so  Fiona can allow the hospital to transfuse him against his, and his family’s wishes, if she deems it to be in the interests of his welfare.

The interactions between them are gentle and personal in tone rather than polemic or political but in this gentle way they do hold up for scrutiny a romantic faith and family focussed world view, alongside a secular utilitarian one.

In the process McEwan also holds up scrutiny to his own readership, people like me and the bookgroupers. He could be pointing the finger at us when Fiona describes the spectrum of views people held on her most recent major case.

at one end people of the secular utilitarian persuasion, impatient of legal detail, blessed by an easy moral equation: one child saved better than two dead.

The narrator informs us very early in the book that it was this case that had caused the turmoil in her marriage:. It concerned conjoined twins, destined to die without medical intervention. She had to decide whether to authorise doctors to separate them, knowing one would die in the hope that the other would live. The trauma of the decision to kill that child, and the ensuing hate mail and media frenzy, had caused her to withdraw emotionally, but she never explained this to her husband, and never does at any stage.

The book ends however, with her talking to him in intimate detail about the Jehovah’s Witness boy. This, to me, makes the book a beautifully crafted redemption story, where or hero, heroine, in this case has learnt a lesson and everyone is better off for it.

Another great line I liked appears before the concluding reconciliation, while Fiona is contemplating life as a deserted wife, 60ish, a judge, living a the law courts. How does one behave, where will she go and who with?

To be the object of general pity was also a form of social death. The nineteenth century was closer than most women thought.

By the end, despite all these complex moral ambiguities, McEwan had not radically changed my world view, probably because it already largely aligns with his. He did though leave me feeling like a softer, less dogmatic human. In any moment the betrayer, the betrayed, and the call of duty, can seem very clear to us, but they rarely are.  There are many types of betrayal and many duties. One betrayal may cause another, and fulfilling one duty may mean failing another.

June 30, 2015 at 12:50 pm 4 comments

THE TESTAMENT OF MARY by COLM TOIBIN

 

testament of mary

I told him before he departed that all my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty

I love that quote, and this book contains a few others that are nearly as good. Unfortunately these highlights are rare.

A famous irish author chooses to re-write the new testament in the voice of the catholic church, and ireland’s, number 1 saint – the mother of jesus. A courageous decision Sir Humphrey might have called it, but given it was shortlisted for the booker in 2013 i guess you could say the gamble worked. It didn’t work for me however, or the other bookgroupers.

we didn’t hate it, but its a very hard book to love. In a way its because toibin is too good. he has to make a lot of choices in this book. he has to invent mary, what is she like, what does she want to say, what did she see, and how did she interpret it. His choices are brave at every turn – to a fault. he never makes an easy choice so the mary we read, the mary of toibin’s creation could very well be real but she is not likeable, wise, insightful or entertaining. he is scared, reclusive, resentful even bitter. In modern terms we would say she is depressed.

This makes the book hard work and quite frustrating. All the famous, and spectacular, events are related in the flat drone of a very sad old lady, and we don’t understand why she is like that until the end. Some months after witnessing the crucifixion, and narrating us through it from a mothers perspective, she says

I had been made wild by what I saw and nothing has ever changed that. I have been unhinged by what I saw in daylight and no darkness will assuage that or lessen what it did to me.

At this point you can see why some people think the book is a literary triumph for toibin. he is so truthful, so determined to imagine a version of the ageing, reflective mary that could be real, he makes no attempt to give us a good read. Instead he gives us a trauma survivor. A woman living in a police state, who has been in hiding and in fear of her life for years, who watched her son mutilated in public and stood by doing nothing. A woman who is now visited by people determined to make him their saviour rather than her son, and worst of all, that may be the choice he himself made – to abandon her.

you can see why she might be depressed, but it doesn’t make the book fun to read. as one bookgrouper said its a bit like cormac macarthy’s the road in its relentless bleakness.

It did raise an interesting idea for me however. there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of trauma survivors, from places like rawanda, sudan, congo, afghanistan that may have been through similar things – forced to  stand by while their loved ones are hacked apart by one crazy regime or another. Some of these people end up in places like australia as refugees, where we expect them to become normal happy citizens. having read this book i think its a miracle that some of them do.

 

April 13, 2014 at 1:07 pm Leave a comment

Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

hedgehog

Redemption. What does it take to redeem a book, or a life? Page after page and day after day of struggle, either searching for or talking and writing about meaning and beauty, but failing to find it. Can 10 beautiful pages justify the previous 300? Can an ending, or our ending,  redeem what came before? Can the long view of hindsight outweigh the page by page reading experience, or the moment by moment day by day experience of living ?
Perhaps it can. Most bookgroupers were very positive about the hedgehog. Two of us were not. We complained loudly that it droned on, took too long to get to the point, and could have started half way through, etc. Whilst the enthusiasts agreed it took a while to get going, they felt it was more than worth it. Fascinatingly though, the negative among us had not finished the book, while the positive had.
So the positives were reviewing the book in hindsight, post the emotional, but redemptive ending. In contrast, we negatives were still in the tortured moment, without the benefit of looking back and weighing the sum of our frustrations and insight.
I will focus more on the positives and negatives of the book later.
It’s an open question whether the positive bookgroupers would have been negative if asked before the ending. As a negative that subsequently completed the book I find myself agnostic. I would like to believe in the redeemer, to acknowledge i could not have found meaning in the end without all the pain of the journey, but I cannot. i find myself with residual resentment. All those pages of pain and frustration could have been spent doing something else. Did I really have to go through them for the heartfelt beauty of the ending?
Perhaps not. Perhaps Renee’s life of hidden intellectualism was a sad waste, un-redeemed by a few weeks of companionship at the end? The problem is that it is hard to deny that her life was not redeemed by her impact on Paloma.
Is that it? The point is not to weigh the sum of our pain and pleasure and ask whether at the end, in hindsight, will I be in the red or black, but rather is anyone else better off because of me? Not have I been saved, but has anyone else?
The trouble is Renee can never know whether Paloma was saved or not. So whilst the fate of Paloma may be a redemption for us as readers of the hedgehog, it may not be for us as people, because we can never know the impacts we have on those around us, the readers of our lives.
Still undecided about the hedgehog? Here is some more on the positives and negatives.
For the negative bookgroupers the big issue was that three quarters of the book is the setup. The action and plot only start after this lengthy introduction. Not only was the introduction too long, it was also too hard to swallow for us negatives, though not for the majority of bookgroupers i should say.
Our two protagonists are a super intelligent 12 year old bent on suicide, and a concierge, building caretaker, hiding her true enlightened cultured nature from the upper class residents of a Paris  apartment block. I found them both annoying. Firstly, the kid is a black hole of negativity, although perhaps many of us were as teenagers. Secondly, the premise of the concierge hiding her true self, well it had me baffled throughout. I never understood the point of it as she never had a reason, or reward, for doing it.
Within this, one way of expressing what annoyed me was their lack of generosity. Both characters were constantly banging on about bad grammar for example. I’m not sure I believe someone can be considered some sort of elevated soul just because they are really keen on art and beauty for their own sake, if at the same time they are still accusatory and dismissive of everyone around them.
Yet the author appears to want us to believe her two protagonists are a higher caste than the other residents of 7 rue de grenelle. This lack of generosity and constant judgement, illustrated by their obsession with grammar, however, suggests they might just be pretentious elitists trying to tell themselves they are better than everyone else by claiming they are super sensitive and knowledgeable about Art and Beauty. In short, they seem to be great examples of exactly the kind of fakery and self deception they are critiquing in the other residents of 7 rue de grenelle.
This set-up also seems very old fashioned and hypocritical. Why make a big fuss over the idea that a concierge could be intelligent? It is extremely patronising. It is the kind of thing you might expect to read in a romantic nineteenth century novel. It implies a multitude of nineteenth century romantic ideas on the part of the author, such as: the nature of the members of each class is different and fixed; both the lumpen proletariat and bourgeois are obnoxious, only the sensitive artistic soul is important; the normal laws of behaviour don’t apply to exceptional sensitive artistic souls who see so much more in the world than others.  In this sense the hedgehog is a pre-modern novel.
After pages and pages of this i felt like  both protagonists deserved to get their comeuppance for their obnoxious ungenerous reverse snobbery.
On the  positive side it is a very intelligent book. There are lots of lectures on art and philosophy, lots of sharp social observation and criticism.  Many book groupers found it to be well written, even though we were reading it in translation. They also found the characters engaging and the set-up interesting rather than frustrating.
Even for we negatives there were some delightful moments, particularly towards the end. For example, when the hero of the book, Monsiuer Ozu, discovers her secret he says to Renee what i had been wanting to say to her all along – ‘its the twenty first century for goodness sake’. This was great moment and credit to the author she gave Renee’s character no answer. Similarly towards the end, Renee christens Paloma the ‘Judge of Humanity’. This very neatly captured what had been annoying me so much about Paloma throughout.
These two moments were a great relief because they revealed, after three quarters of the book, that the author was aware of the flaw in these characters. It revealed that these  flaws had been deliberately created to make a point, and that the characters were not just simply speaking for the author.
On the whole it was a very worthwhile read and most people will love it. If you find the start slow, as i did, skip to the half way mark and carry on from there. It is definitely worth reading from there to the end.

This fantastic book site has a lot more stuff about it.

April 27, 2013 at 6:41 am 2 comments

THE ODYSSEY by HOMER

When rosy fingered Dawn rose over the wine dark sea Dave and his strong grieved companions, each in their fine palace, appointed with good things, grunted and rolled over.

When Coffee, the beloved offspring of Helios and Rumour, had ministered to the companions they gathered together in counsel. The stewards brought bread, and placed many good things upon it. They brought strong wine from the far country where the men play with balls all day and are fearsome to look upon. Then when the noble strong companions had put away their desire for eating and drinking Donfrancisco addressed them in winged words.

Beloved companions, the resolute Leannarkos, the never failing Markopoulos, the astute Petermaous, we have a Journey that only heroes and gods would attempt. Our dear companion, the most loyal of all friends, the resolute and enduring Trishanikis, whose perseverence rivals even that of immortal Sisyphus has summoned us to her strange country where dwell not eaters of bread, men as we know them, but eaters of maccaroons. We must cross the wide ocean where the fishes swarm, and Posiedon earth shaker rules. We must enter upon the roads where Eternal Traffic, despiser of men and most fickle of gods, the trickster daughter of Fate and Luck, can entrap men for many lifetimes.

And so he addressed them in winged words and they spoke back and forth among them until brave Karlaniphous spoke. Noble Donfrancisco, best of men, and all my beloved companions, this is the plan that seems best to me. We must summon the stewards from our well appointed palaces and see that all things are made ready, all provisions are stowed in the well benched black ships, then must make libations and hecatombs to the great god Google, only he can show the best way to make our journey to avoid the briny arms of Poseidon earth shaker and ruler of fishes, to defeat wily Traffic and all her allies.

And so it goes on – its a very long book and its at least 3000 years old and wasn’t written down for about 500 years after it was composed – so you have to cut it a bit of slack.

All the repetition and the unnecessary length and detail are believed to be there because it was an oral tradition. It was entertainment through the long nights so in some ways, back then, the longer the story the better. At least that is what the intro to my translation said.

There are lots of other interesting things to observe about it including the translation issue, the colour issue, the hospitality issue, the gods issue and the hero figure.

However, the first third is quite dull. The parody above is based on that section. It goes on and on like that. The book really only gets going in the middle when odysseus starts to tell the story of his adventure. While this part is still a bit annoying because odysseus himself seems to be quite obnoxious, it does have a lot of action and it does introduce a lot of greek gods. This is quite useful because we have grown up with these gods but most of us dont know them in detail.

So i would say that section is worth reading, but skip the rest – unless you have a need to feel you have read what is probably the foundational piece of literature for our western culture.

In which case, you may be interested in this  study guide and/or these observations.

The translation issue

A big question when approaching homer is which translation to read. This guide to the main ones is the best decision aid i have found. if you want to totally confuse yourself check out the full list of every english translation ever. one of the issues is that it was apparently recited in iambic pentameter (the same rhythmic structure often used by shakespeare) in the ancient greek, so is it more authentic to read a translation that is in verse or is it better to read prose which is more likely to get the translation closer because it doesnt have to worry about rhythm and loud and soft syllables etc.

The colour issue

While reading it I was listened to this radiolab podcast which had a segment about why the colour blue is never used by homer anywhere in his books. The segment said
What is the color of honey, and “faces pale with fear”? If you’re Homer–one of the most influential poets in human history–that color is green. And the sea is “wine-dark,” just like oxen…though sheep are violet. Which all sounds…well, really off. Producer Tim Howardintroduces us to linguist Guy Deutscher, and the story of William Gladstone (a British Prime Minister back in the 1800s, and a huge Homer-ophile). Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! Tim pays a visit to the New York Public Library, where a book of German philosophy from the late 19th Century helps reveal a pattern: across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue always comes last.
i thought it was fascinating. more on the issue here just to prove the strange folk at radiolab are not the only ones to notice this. however the translation I read does use blue. the sea is ‘wine-blue’ throughout not ‘wine-dark’ – bit of ad-libbing by the translator?

The hospitality issue

Most of odysseus’ adventures are based around the idea of people being to hospitable to guests or not hospitable enough, or guests taking advantage of their hosts. For example the central issue is that odysseus is away for 10 years and is annoyed that the ‘suitors’ abused he hospitality of his house all that time. He kills them all for this. The guest/host relationship is an odd thing to be the central theme in an adventure story to people of our time. The intro to my translation claims this is because homer was a wandering poet and effectively lived off hospitality, so it was in his self interest to encourage hosts to be generous.

The gods issue

It is very obvious from the odyssey that the ancient greeks very sensibly just made every inexplicable natural phenomena into a god. Then they made all these gods very fickle and interactive so they could make lots of stories of how various gods related to each other to explain various events. Its a great system if you have no science and its much the same approach that nearly all pre-scientific cultures adopted allround the world. The book puts you inside the head of people like that, of religious people in modern times also perhaps, so that is interesting.

The hero figure

Odysseus is literally the archetypal hero for our culture. What is interesting about that is that he has lots of characteristics we still regrd as heroic – physically big, capable and beautiful. He also seems to have quite a few we might not think of highly – reckless, vengeful, selfish, impetuous, self indulgent. Its quite interesting to compare him to arny schwarznegger, bruce willis, russell crowe or tom cruise type heroes.

July 14, 2012 at 12:28 pm Leave a comment

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