The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

I am aware that this book has been around for a while. I fell upon it in an Oxfam bookshop after hearing quite a bit about it previously, as well as seeing the film. The well known painting by Vermeer on the cover ensures that the book attracts attention. Such is the quality that many people find in Vermeers work, especially with this one. Very little is known about Vermeer or the background to the painted girl, so Tracy Chevalier has shaped a story around a picture that has already prompted wonder and speculation.

The story is told by the girl herself, named Griet. Set in 17th century Delft in the Netherlands, Griet is sent to work as a maid in the Vermeer household in 'Papist Corner'. Her family has fallen on hard times after her father, a talented craftsman tile maker, is blinded after a kiln explodes. Griet is 16 years old and has an artistic eye and a shrewd mind, which she mostly hides, except to us. We are transported into a maids life of washing, cooking and cleaning in a large household of the artist and his large family. We also take part in the dynamics of the house as Griet intergrates with a family of mixed characters. Her status in the house changes when Vermeer favours Griet to help him with his paintings (something no one else is allowed to do). This causes resentment and suspicion but also some grudgingly felt respect. However, when Griet is asked to pose for a new painting at the behest of Vermeers leering patron, everything will change and there is no going back. There are also many layers and sub plots interwoven with the main story, about Griets reluctant relationship with a local butchers son and also the on going fates of her family members.

This book is very easy to read and slides along with an effortless smoothness. I was quickly engrossed in Griets world, fascinated by the descriptions of Delft in the 1600's, but mostly I really liked her. I liked reading her thoughts, her way of describing her position in life, her comfortable understanding and self-respect, but also her ability to learn. I found her accounts of doing the laundry as interesting as her enthusiasm over Vermeers paintings. She has great depth and people around her are drawn to her even if this means they dislike her. She invites opinion, just as the painting does.

Griets relationship with Vermeer forms the heart of the novel, it is where its warmth comes from. She loves his work because she understands it, and therefore his needs and obsessions. His wife does not. The growing attraction and sexual tension is outwardly restrained but inwardly palpable. Griet knows her position, and so does Vermeer. As we know the troubled heart within her, we suspect it in him also, but it is Griet who is stronger and willing to sacrifice, knowing the possible consequences. Although he does come through for her in the end, he is also weaker and more selfish in the short term. There is no tawdry affair, no affair at all. But it is tangible all the same. The result is an enigmatic painting that implies far more than it says. We can read into it what we will.

There are many other layers and characters that I haven't even touched upon, the savvy Maria Thins who is entertained by the ruckus Griet is causing in the household, the scheming daughter, Cornelia, who plots Griets downfall, the faithful and persistant Pieter who fights to win Griets heart. All of this whirling around a maid who likes to keep herself to herself. It is not a large book but there is something new happening, some new direction of plot or sub plot on each page. The conclusion seemed a little sudden but rounded all the streams of plot lines off. Within the factual dates of Vermeers life line, and within the boundaries of realism, there was never going to be a sunset ending, but Griet deserves a decent chance, and I found the ending provided something for her to look back on, but also to move forward from too.

I really loved reading this book, the gentle descriptions, the domestic life in a large house. I enjoyed getting to know a girl whose face I already knew of, and learning her (fictional) story. Without wanting to sound too cliched, this is a story told with a warmth of words that parallel the warmth of feeling that you can get from looking at a Vermeer painting. It is not my favourite book but I would definately recommend it as a good read.

Tracy Chevalier has her own website which talks about her book, offers a reading guide and shows you the paintings by Vermeer that are mentioned in the novel...

Sunday, 24 August 2008

The Unswept Path: Contemporary American Haiku

Ok, ok, I admit it. I am a HAIKU JUNKIE, I can say it, I'm not afraid. And this week my weakness won and I bought this lovely book of Contemporary American Haiku.
I have quite a few Haiku collections which I hope to feature here at times in the future, and from which I feature poems for Haiku of the week (in the column to your right). I love both traditional and contemporary versions of these three line poems. I am not going to present the Japanese history or dynamics here. You can learn more about Haiku origins and rules, if you wish, by clicking here.
Each chapter in this anthology is written by a different poet, with a short introduction followed by a small collection of their work. Each chapter is very firmly written in the voice of its author, creating some very diverse styles of thought and subject matter, some traditional, gentle, nature-based and seasonal, some more modern, punchy and unusual, even.
The introductions to each poet are also individual and a joy to read. We have a couple who lived in a run down house in Japan for many years and wrote poetry about their stay. We have a man who had a brief but passionate affair with a mysterious Japanese woman with whom he translated some haiku into English and then wrote his own about her. We have an old couple who have lived in Japan for many years, writing and walking their way through the landscape they love, only now in their eighties, find themselves in sheltered accomodation and too ill to go far from home. There are many more.
The introductions also include many descriptions of what Haiku means to them, why this very distinct form of writing is important to them. My particular favourite came from Patricia Donegan...
"Haiku can be the antedote to the speed of post-modern culture, allowing one to step off the spinning wheel, to stop and breathe deeply and slowly. To note the birth and death of each moment."
There will be many haiku from this book that will make it onto Haiku of the week so look out for those. There are also links on the right hand column for good Haiku sites that I know of...

Sunday, 17 August 2008

One Life by Rebecca Frayn

I was looking forward to reading this book, which was bought for me as a present, because I was drawn to the picture on the front. It tackles the highly emotive subject of infertility and the longing to have a baby.

Rose and Johnny are in their 30's. Rose, a photographer, is happy with the way things are but Johnny feels it is time they had a child together. Rose stalls at first, but they start trying, to no success. They eventually go to the doctor and IVF treatment is suggested because Johnny's sperm count is low. Three lots of IVF treatments later and Rose and Johnny are coming apart at the seams, the stress, the dashed hopes and the strain of the treatment is taking its toll. Rose is now considering desperate options to make their wishes come true.

Rebecca Frayn is a film maker who has worked on Cutting Edge and The South Bank Show on TV (among others). She has also undergone IVF treatment herself, so knows first hand the rollercoaster that must accompany these experiences, and she explores every facet and possibility that arises with such a situation, the emotional ups and downs, the obsessional longing, and the strain it places on a relationship. It is sensitively and thoroughly written. However, there are times, especially during the first half, that the book feels journalistic, like a documentary that I've seen before, and sadly that is where I found it disappointing.
Rose's character does develop with the responsibility of the treatments and keeping her husband happy, especially during the second half where there are some well crafted paragraphs. In contrast, Johnny seems to behave like a petulant child, largely unsupportive while she undergoes various tiresome, sometimes undignified and uncomfortable procedures to fulfill his wish for a child. She was the one reluctant at first, but gave in because she loves him. He spends much of the story being moody, and barely civil towards her, absorbed in his own grievances, unless he is getting what he wants. The story is told from her point of view but she remains forgiving and understanding as her own need for a baby grows. The other characters are representations to furnish the different sides to their predicament - the highly fertile friends, the gay friend and potential sperm donor... The ending was not a complete surprise either.
The book is certainly representative of our modern times, IVF becoming a more common option for desperate couples. There is also the angle that, while genuine people have been saved by this treatment, how much does it serve our growing psychologies of acquirement, the consumer within us that demands the right to have what we want. There is lots to consider in discussion.
I was trying to think who would enjoy this novel. People who have gone through IVF have probably had enough of it to want to read about it. Possibly those involved in councelling or the medical industry may gain some insights, or relatives of a loved one undergoing such trauma's to their lives. From a literary point of view I found it one dimensional. Yes, I did want the blue line to show on each pregnancy test, for all of her efforts to pay off, so her husband will start to speak to her again and they could get on with their lives. Generally though, I found it dull, and as a novel and not a biography, it could have been deeper, more imaginative and therefore wring every emotion out of the reader in a very profound way. It remains that the thing I liked the most was the picture on the cover.

For an interesting interview, Making babies the Noughties way, with Rebecca Frayn, about her own experiences that drove her to write the book, click on this link...

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I knew this one would be emotional so I've waited a while to make sure I was receptive and in the right frame of mind to read it. It was lent to me with his recommendations by my friends husband some time ago.
This is the story of Stephen Wraysford, starting in 1910 while working in France, he has a passionate affair with a married French woman. They run away together but finding herself pregnant, Isabelle, driven by her conscience returns to her family and then her husband. We are then pitched headlong into 1916 and the trenches of the First World War, where Stephen is living and fighting along with his men. The war forms the bulk of the novel and is interspersed with accounts from his grandaughter in 1978 (and has never met him) who is researching her grandfathers life to gain an insight on where she comes from. We learn, mainly from his perspective as it happens, but also from an retrospective view in the future, about his war experiences, his re encounter with Isabelle and how war affects and changes everyone.
It is written in a very straightforward style, with little poetry or wordplay, just strong characters and plot. I was surprised by the first 100 or so pages describing the love affair. Although a good introduction to the characters it is a little long and some of the plotlines it introduces peter out later in the book. The core of the book is the war itself and this is when the book really gets going.
The characters of the book are built up with details of their lives, making them seem real. They are never representational, nor are they over sentimentalised. You feel you get to know them, you connect to them, you worry about them, their circumstances, of which we can never truly imagine, and you are hurt when they fall. The author describes the horrors without sensationalising them. You are not let off lightly and some parts are difficult to continue. I had to put the book down and come back to it more than once. The main character, Stephen, is the hardest to know, 'a strange one', described as cold and enigmatic. He grew on me and I found I admired and cared for him towards the end. I also found, although a male dominated story and set up, that the womens characters, when present, were also well rounded as recognisable individuals, not just periphery to the real action.
It is the details that allow you to glimpse their crippling and inhuman conditions. I wanted to feel the irritation of lice, or to hear the noise of the shells, only momentarily, just to know. I don't want to go down the tunnels or experience the death. I was moved greatly on many occasions, by the poor boy in the hospital who is burnt and whose treatments add to his agonies before he dies, or Brennan in the nursing home in 1978, muttering about his brother, who, only we know was killed on the frontline during the war and whose torso was found by Brennan 2 weeks later. The incapability of those not in the war to fully understand or deal with the horrors the soldiers have witnessed adds to the situation they are in. They pray for it to be over but how do they go back to any normal kind of life, finding themselves forever alone and damaged because of it. I found I was racing the last part with disbelief, just to know the outcome. I also found the arrangement of the sections between the war and 1978 heightened the experience and gave a linked perspective to modern day.
I didn't think it was going to, but this book grabbed me, almost against my will. I would urge anyone to read it because these stories need to be told. We are very soon to be handed the responsibility of passing them on, so they are not forgotten, and this book is an excellent place to start.
For anyone who enjoyed this book, I would also recommend Germinal by Emile Zola, describing similar depths of the human spirit to survive in abject circumstances, not during a war but working in the mines in 19th century France.
Book Browse have a readers guide for Birdsong...

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

A first novel by Keith Donohue and a highly ambitious and imaginative story to tackle and make a good job of. This is the story of a young seven year old boy, Henry Day, who is kidnapped by fairies and replaced by a replica, a Changeling, who lives in his place, while the boy lives in the timeless world of the forest fairies. We are told, chapter by chapter, of these displaced peoples view, as they grow in their new existences.
When the book started I was worried it was going to be all 'acorn cups full of sunshine' and 'robes spun from spiders web'. A pseudo-Disney fairy world. I was quickly relieved and sometimes quite surprised by the brutality and animalistic qualities of the Changelings world. Forever children, they are frequently hungry, cold and dirty, living on their wits, a life out of sync with the world we know, all of them wishing for the time to re-enter the world again, as another child will be courted as a swap.
Essentially we have 2 stories existing side by side, the protagonists only meeting briefly at the end. We have a little boy learning to survive in the forest using the skills and heightened senses taught to him by the others in the small feral band, as well as retaining the need to write it all down. His relationship with the others and his becoming one of them and their society (some of which has echoes of The Lord of the Flies) forms the boys story, as the they prepare, many years in advance for the next swap. Then we have the Changeling who becomes Henry Day, his coldness and inability to relate to other people well, despite his ability to mimic the boy, the suspicions of his parents, and as he grows older, his own need to forget his previous life in the forest, as well as his obsession with protecting his own son.
I enjoyed greatly listening to each of their strange tales, their outsiders views, their alienation and need to survive. I found the Changeling character less likeable but none the less interesting. I also enjoyed the fact that I really did not know where the stories would end up. There are enough close encounters and originality to keep the reader gripped all the way through. Sometimes other people are involved in these encounters which taps into our own folklore, things mysteriously missing, even people traumatised by overstepping into the Changeling world. I found the inevitable meeting and discovery of each other, many many years in the future was what drove the plot, and its eventual fruition moving and quite tragic. While one grows into a man with his own family, I found myself shocked at the physical description of how the boy looked after the same amount of time living another kind of life, rough and primal. A life of half remembered longing that will never be fulfilled. I will leave this for you to discover.
My only complaint is the overuse of unbelievable coincidences that the book relies on heavily to drive the story forward. There are too many and at least one becomes almost implausable. This could make an otherwise excellent piece of story telling appear a bit sloppy in places. I found that this could be forgiven though, amongst so much else that entertained and gave food for thought in a first novel. A highly memorable book.

Here are links to another interesting review from the Guardian and a Readers Guide from Book browse...

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye