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

Sunday, 27 July 2008

The Dead Sea Poems by Simon Armitage

I picked up this book from a lovely second hand bookshop in Whitby called Endeavor Books, a great place to lose yourself for an hour or two. As always with poetry books I flicked it open and if something does not catch my eye, I put it back. This one fell open on A Hip Flask and I was hooked. I read the whole book in an evening and found many that I liked and have shared with others many times. While some of the longer poems do not appeal as much, the shorter ones I find interesting and intriguing.
I tend to mark my favourites so I can easily find them when I need to revisit them. In this book these include the strange and disturbing Man with a Golf Ball Heart, the almost nightmarish, Dr Phibes quality of The Anaesthetist, or the funny but poignant C.V. It contains a mixture of rhyming and non rhyming poems.

A Hip Flask

To bring about safe passage to the States
and back, when taken from its sleeve or pouch
this gift sits where it should, tucked like a gun
inside the holster of a pocket, snug
against the leg or thigh or buttock, but
more suitably it fits the chest, the breast,
top left inside a jacket, where it feels
like armour plating or a sheriff's shield.

Good going for a little silver tin:
convex, concave, reflective on the out
and on the in. Misplaced, but then again
not knowing one malt from the next it's gin
that I'll be swigging, tipping to the lips
or sipping from the thimble of its lid.

I have a watch, map, toothbrush, cards and cash,
a licence, permit, pass, a ticket
going Eastern Seaboard, Central, Mountain
and Pacific,
and a hip flask: tailored, weighed
and measured, worked both ways, this present made
to hide the heart and hold the heart in place.

Simon Armitage

If you want to know more about Simon Armitage, here is a link to his website...

Monday, 21 July 2008

Never Let Me Go by Kasuo Ishiguro

A strange one this book, narrated by one of the 3 main characters, most of the story is told in retrospect. It is about 3 people and how they grow up at school together and what happens to them afterwards. Not that strange so far and the early part reads a little bit like a more sophisticated version of Mallory Towers by Enid Blyton, children at a mixed boarding school in England in the near future, playing sports, learning, socialising. But this is not an ordinary school and our narrator, Kathy drops enough hints even on the first page. The full picture, however, emerges slowly. Strange words like 'donors' and 'completion' litter the otherwise ordinary beginning of a carer recounting her school days. There are no parents, endless creativity for the Gallery, sales of 2nd hand items and, most profoundly, the reactions amongst the teachers towards the children to make you want to read on and find out the roots of their situation. Some teachers seem embarressed to be there, others view them with open distaste, one recoils in horror if they come near. Most are civil and kind, but distant. One wants the chidren to be more informed. Anyone who visits from outside rushes in and out as if they will be contaminated.
The children find some of this intriguing but also used to it and are preoccupied by growing up. Their world seems second hand and a bit shabby, the children willingly forgotten. This is most evident when they leave school and are deposited on a dilapidated farm in Norfolk, where it is so cold at night they have to pile rugs on the bed to keep warm. During this time, as they grow, have relationships, fall outs, they learn of their destiny. This life is all they know and there are periods when you forget that their situation is far from normal.

The whole idea behind the book raises a lot of ethical questions which are good for discussion. The writing is unusual, sedate, stoical. None of the children rebel or even argue about it. They do not want sympathy or understanding. They have no contemplation of the guilt that surrounds them. You find yourself asking them 'Why don't you just run away?' Kathy's point of view is insightful as well as distancing. It is as if she needs to write it down to put it together herself. Also I really did not like Ruths character and couldn't understand why none of them stood up to her. At times I found them infuriating, their obsessions, building dramas out of nothing, like going to see this legendary boat, which is just a boat and never mentioned again. I also found that this illustrated their differences and also their sadness, from an outsiders point of view. The emotionless cloud that forms around the text is unsettling but is successful as it is the only way we can experience these unfortunates, who are not machines but people, brought up kindly, but practically, and without love, knowing that their purpose is a service with an ultimate price.

A book I found interesting, more after I had read it. I was unable to connect with anyone in it to have any great impact emotionally. It does provide, however, food for thought about the morality of some developments that are nearer than we think. A definate talking point and unusual read.
Here are some links for further reading:-

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I was surprised by how short and easy to read this was. My experience of this book before I read it had frequently included groans about how heavy and deep it was, usually by those who had not read it themselves. Others have had to read it as part of a course. Some adopt an air of intellectualism, as if they alone are truly in touch with what Kafka was about. After watching an excellent play based on the book I wanted to investigate for myself.
I was intrigued by the idea of someone transforming into a beetle, but knew little more before seeing the play. It is a very human story, told in a straight forward way, of how Gregor becomes a giant beetle over night and how this affects him and his family.
The narrator takes Gregors point of view for the majority of the story and I found the text in translation added an endearing and vulnerable side to him, an innocent abroad feeling, as we are taken through his difficulties and the repulsion and rejection towards him of those he loves. He finds himself unable to communicate with them, although at no time does he blame his family or show anything less than love for them, as they withdraw from him and eventually inflict a cruel series of rejections in which they feel justified because of his distasteful and embarressing situation. It is easy for them to turn their back on him and treat him inhumanely, for his own good of course, now he is unrecognisable as their relation. This continues until his tragic end, when the family reflects little on his plight and more on their own relief.
Tied in with all of this is the fact that Gregor was the main breadwinner, saving his family from debt when their business failed. Now he is no longer useful and they must seek employment themselves to survive. The passages concerning employment provide a glimpse of the work ethics of Eastern Europe in the early 1900s.
There are lots of theories about Gregors transformation, and whether he physically transforms at all. Is it in his head? This adds further curiosities to the storys interpretation. In the play that I saw Gregor stayed a man, which I found incredibly moving and upsetting. We could see he was the same person, his family couldn't, as in the book.
There are many parallels drawn with those who are marginalised either by disfigurement or mental illness. I found this most profoundly when I considered reactions to the elderly, especially those with Alzheimers or other forms of dimentia, needing to be looked after, maybe a breadwinner earlier in life, unable to communicate, sometimes violent, and unrecognisable as their former selves. Not all of these people are unloved or cruelly treated as Gregor is, but how would we react? We would all like to think we would do the right thing by our family, but what if one of our family became a smelly, screaching insect for real. How happy would we be about it? Maybe the extreme reactions to this book are not because it is difficult to read, but because it raises difficult questions, things we don't want to think about.
Here are some links you may find useful...

Sunday, 6 July 2008

If I Told You Once by Judy Budnitz

This is a story about stories. Stories that people tell, stories that people believe and stories about things that have happened. The plot follows four generations of women, the oldest of whom was born in the Northern European forests of snow, and who emigrates to America where her family grows. Told by the four women themselves, this story has an added injection of folklore and superstition which continues through the more western life in the States and provides another dimension to the novel. Interpretation, myth or reality, all of life is as real as the person who tells the story believes it to be, and here we have four points of view, four realities.
Llana is the matriarch, mysterious and strong, in touch with the 'old ways', who survives a climate (meterological and political) to find love and a new life. Sashie, her daughter is very different and rejects her mothers traditional roots for the 'clean' American way. Mara is the grandaughter, the darkest character, whose view is almost sociopathic. Finally Nomie in the present day, who is closest to Llana and sees the truth through her eyes.
All four have a distinctive voice in the narrative, but it is Llana from the old country who is the strongest presence and provides the pivot that all other characters revolve around, and finally circle back to.
Some of the novel feels like a series of short fairystories, especially the first part in Europe. This is emphasised by the short punchy sentences. The first 20 pages were a captivating opening into Llana's world, and raced away without me noticing that I was enveloped in the plot.
Some of the stories later in the book are more ambiguous and left unexplained, like Sashie's cleaners, or Mara's ladder to the sky. Reality, story or delusion? This sometimes left me frustrated but it also leads you to ask what is reality?
Budnitz pulls no punches in illustrating the horrific episodes in life too, like in war, with poignant descriptions and the economy of words adding to the distasteful scenes. Every fairystory has some sense of the horrific, a wolf lurking in grandma's clothing. Budnitz employs all of these tales we were brought up on with fascination and wonder.
This is not a long book but the time scale (early 20th century, through World War II, to the present day) gives it an epic feel which led me to a few tears at the ending. A very enjoyable book and an interesting voice to look out for.

To read an interview with Judy Budnitz about the book and her writing, click on this link:-

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye