For Easter, Stu and I decided to go camping on our way up the coast to our families. Obviously, I needed a holiday read as the book I was making my way through at the time would not have satisfied the criteria of light reading. Having just started a new job and totally overwhelmed my brain in the process, I sent out word to some reading friends for help with a book suggestion. The first response was from Stevie who suggested I read the follow-up of the Magician novels by Raymond Feist which I read last year, or ‘some awesome history fiction about old britain and kings and queens and time travel?’ Kel sent some great suggestions, Agatha Christie being one that I toyed with and would have won if Stevie’s amazing proposition hadn’t come in first. Yet the response that made me laugh so hard was from Jessi who wrote the following: “Have you read Coetzee yet? Disgrace is amazing.”
I think we have very different ideas of what makes a good holiday read.

Armed with this arsenal of book suggestions I made a frantic search around the cities bookshops to get the Ancient Future trilogy, knowing deep in my waters that this is what would make me happy.  The search ended up being nearly as difficult as a quest most often found in a fantasy novel and on the way I found some great stores in the city, culminating last night in a mad dash to Minotaur on Elizabeth st to get the last book of the series before it shut at 6pm.  Nothing gets me obsessed like a fantasy novel!

I think that the best way to think about these books is as an ode to the 1990s. There is so much about them that now seems cringe-worthy but if one keeps the decade of our youth in mind while reading, these intensely daggy moments are forgiven. Our heroine Tory is the Black Belt Tae Kwon Do, saxophone playing (saxophone were very sexy in the 90s!), history student, Sydney born daughter of a British archeologist father and internationally renowned harpist mother. Bear with me now. Her brother Brian died in a tragic Tae Kwon Do accident (don’t laugh, this is serious stuff) and thus she has travelled to England to take a break from her life and find herself. On Midsummer night her rental car breaks down near an abandoned field so Tory, being a Black Belt and afraid of nothing, walks in to the field with her bags (and saxophone) and finds an ancient ring of stones. Cue being transported through time by an ancient time travelling Mage and she arrives in 6th Century Britain and the story begins.

And it is so much fun! I kept reading out passages early on to Stu and later on keeping him abreast of plot developments (“Oh Tory’s the Queen now” or “Nah, she is still the Queen, but now she’s a Goddess too” and “No, they aren’t in Britain anymore, she is in Atlantis”) and he laughed and mocked so heartily. But I didn’t care. I kept reading my books and loving it. I’m now a third of the way through the last book and I’m writing this now because I don’t really believe that the ending will change my perception of the book. It served its purpose and keep me occupied, it sparked off a rivalry between Stu and I as to who could read faster (I can, obviously. Bless him and his genius brain but he doesn’t do novels.) and now I will think a whole lot more about Atlantis, time travel and ancient Britain than I thought I ever would.

I heartily recommend these books if you want to lose yourself in some fantastical frivolity. May the Goddess keep you.

Advertisements

I have been thinking about Jeanette Winterson and her portrayal of madness. I think what I found so refreshing was her lack of apology and the presence to take a positivity from the difficulty. In the same vein, then, I read this and thought it rang true. I’ll ignore the last sentence for now.

“Anxiety is like the spouse you’re stuck with for better and worse, who makes you nuts but has permeated your cells and without whom you cannot imagine your own heart beating. Anxiety lives with you day and night, holding your hand and nudging you to act, urging you to get up, do more, fix something, make something. Never satisfied, always pressing, it wants you to win, to outlast the others, to impress, excite, excel, astonish. And, as in a marriage, you comply, mostly agreeably, for your anxiety traces the rhythm of your life. Then one morning, it has you by the throat and you find yourself weepy and overwrought, unable to respond to its call.”
-Lisa Miller, ‘Listening to Xanax’, New York Magazine, March18, 2012.
http://nymag.com/print/?/news/features/xanax-2012-3/

I feel very lucky to have read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and this newest book by Winterson back to back. I feel that at this moment my thoughts on the book are incredibly disjointed, and if I was having a conversation about it I would bounce all over the place while I remembered different aspects that I enjoyed.

(Something about this photo makes me very, very sad. I think part of it might be the ill fitting swimmers that symbolises the other neglect in the author’s childhood)

This memoir was so beautifully written, and at times so crushingly sad. My heart ached when she wrote at the beginning of the book on some of the ‘truths’ of Oranges, saying that when she wrote it at age 25 she had to give her childhood self a friend, as it was too painful to acknowledge that she had been entirely alone in the world. Also, the silences are revealing of this pain. I don’t remember reading in Oranges anything about the coal pit or the doorstep and being banished there. They are truly chilling details of neglect that a young woman just was not able to acknowledge without causing significant metal distress. This sort of comment and reflection on self narrative is fascinating, and as a novice oral historian I am terribly interested in the ways that individuals construct and reshape their memories and pasts throughout different stages in their lives.

I have begun folding back the pages of books when I read them, marking the pages I enjoyed and the passages that strike me with beautiful writing or honest observations. This book is almost inflated to twice its size so many pages are folded back.

There is a point in this book where things turn very dramatically. The story shifts from being a conversation and reflection on the past to a portrait of madness and descent into the deepest depression. When it reached this point, with about a quarter of the book to go, I continued reading through the night with Stu laying next to me in bed, my body exhausted from the days work yet my brain intent on staying with her on this dark journey. It was while reading this part of the book that I was the most impacted by the story and by her writing. One section in particular, when she recounted the conversations she was having in the midst of her illness with the voice in her mind, the destructive all-consuming dark part that wanted her to die, was so stunning it made me cry. “A few months later we were having our afternoon walk when I said something about how nobody had cuddled us when we were little. I said ‘us’, not ‘you’. She held my hand. She had never done that before; mainly she walked behind shooting her sentences. We both sat down and cried. I said, ‘We will learn how to love.’ ”

I felt that in this book Winterson was so honest, sparing herself no humiliation in explaining the truth of her mind, perhaps in an effort to understand it herself.

She also dealt beautifully with madness (I use the word mad with a full appreciation of its weight) and many of the things made me cry for their honesty and for the fact that I have felt very much like that at several points in life. I think her observation “Probably we are less tolerant of madness now than at any period in history. There is no place for it. Crucially, there is no time for it. Going mad takes time. Getting sane takes time.”  cuts to the heart of one of my enduring frustrations with my own mental illness, that it is often compounded by the inflexibility of modern society to accommodate it and that there is very little recognition of the purpose or transformative power of madness. By saying that I don’t wish to minimise how scary it can be to be in the middle of madness, but coming through the other side of it has taught me every worthwhile lesson I have learnt in life.

Another thing I greatly admired was Winterson’s use of poetry and myth to furnish her story. Nobody had ever made me want to read Jung, but I can now see the worth in doing so. Psychoanalysis has always seemed so alienatingly abstract, but I feel as though it added so greatly to her understanding of her own mind and adds a richness to the stories and myths of our common culture.

Something that I loved was her working class appreciation of artistic endeavour and of literature. Her ability to link the old vanished traditions of working class people in the north with high English literature assuaged my near constant guilt for wishing to pursue the understanding of history for its own sake. Not for the sake of vocation, or productivity. Not to be able to answer the question ‘But what are you going to do with it when you finish?’. For the sheer joy of learning and of using my mind to query and analyse and deconstruct meaning in the structures of society in the present and the past.

And yet it was truly an adoption narrative. Of finding home and figuring out where we belong and the core place that identity takes in our life. What is to be admired about Winterson, an observation that my friend Jessi made, was how honest she was about the ending. While adoption narratives are traditionally framed with their happy endings, this one was just honest. She ends with the line “I have no idea what happens next.” and that is just the way that life is. It doesn’t really end until it really ends.

Now reading: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

This is one of those books. Those books you see in shops, hear mentioned on the radio, friends sometimes talk about them and you think, maybe I’ll read it someday, maybe I won’t. One of those books you might not have read, but then circumstances lead you to and then you’re so glad that you did. I loved this book, it was so beautiful and enjoyable and horrifying and wonderful and I’m so very glad that I did read it.

While the narrative was compelling and kept me reading, I most enjoyed the relationships Brooks developed between those in the village. Mostly I think I reveled in the illumination of love between the characters that she described so warmly. Anna’s love of her husband Sam, the way she adored her beautiful babies, her love of her friend Elinor and the possibility of love, briefly, with the tailor. As well as  relationships, Brooks did a beautiful job at creating a vivid portrait of individuals within the community. In my mind I also keep returning to the Gowdie women, Mem and Anys, and the way that their memory refused to be suppressed after their horrific murders, murders that demonstrated the incredible power that transgressive women can have.

I also greatly admired the use of language that Brooks employed, playing around with the old words of the local dialect without providing explanation of what they meant, instead leaving the reader to make sense of them in their context. I am not sure of the providence of the words, but I feel that they added greatly to the parochial nature of the tale, a story so grounded in the land and the tradition of the region.These were the details that I so enjoyed about the book, the colour that she added to the life of the miners and their families, the traditions of small villages and the lives of those that it is often so difficult to find about in history, of women. This book is a beautiful example of historical fiction done properly and a wonderful testament to the memory of the brave community who sacrificed so much to protect the communities around them.

For a story that was set in a quarantined community, strangely enough the book never made me feel claustrophobic.  I think perhaps the inner life of Anna prevented me from feeling the walls closing in and I only remembered at the end, when Anna rides Anteros through the neighbouring village after the quarantine has been lifted, how isolated they really were.

The book took what I thought was a very unexpected turn towards the end. I thought I had an inkling as to what would happen once she helped the mother Bradford deliver her baby safely. I thought that she would take the baby, move to another place and start a new life. I didn’t really anticipate the extent to which that life would change and it was bizarre but wonderfully so. Also, the revelations of the Rectors true nature shocked and disturbed me, making me sad for poor Elinor and angry that the Rector was really just had a cold heart the whole time. I think I felt that I had been duped by him, sensing a small part of the betrayal Anna must have felt after devoting so much of her life to the Mompellions.

Ultimately, I think what the Brooks achieved was to illuminate the world of women, and of one woman in particular. To give her flesh, colour and life and to give her confidence and capability. She illustrated through Anna the way that ordinary people become extraordinary through exceptional circumstances.

Now reading: Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

postscript. I think, perhaps, that it might be a bit strange that I took such a warm feeling away from a book that was actually quite grim and brutal and was set during a plague. Maybe we’ll put that down to me reading this during the time that I became an Aunty.

If Vacant Possession is a comedy then I think I missed the joke.

Don’t get me wrong, it is funny, very funny. Some of the funniest images and one liners I have read are in this book.Such as a description of a patient in the old folks home; “Dr Furness said it was a benign delusion. It’s not unusual, as these things go. There was a poor old lass came in with hypothermia, last winter it would have been, that thought she was the present Majesty. Used to knock her drip bottle about, thinking she was launching cruise liners” or when Colin was ruminating “Blind chance, he knew, could catch you a painful blow with her white stick.”

But I think I had a hard time grasping the satire this book is supposed to be. Perhaps I was lacking the context, the world of 1980s Britain in which it was set. The novel is overwhelmingly a comment on the social system, both in terms of mental health care, aged care and social welfare that still resonates today. And certainly, Mantel makes some very darkly dry insights on the nature of marriage, but again, I may be lacking the context of living in a loveless and stifling long term marriage with four unbearable children.

Yet mostly, I think I don’t get the joke because the content is so depressingly dark, and the characters are so human, so twisted and self serving.

Despite all of that, or perhaps because of it, I love this book. I found it to be much more enjoyable then it’s prequel, Every Day is Mothers Day (I finally understood the meaning of that title after it was explained in this novel) and far more approachable. The whole time I found myself marvelling at Mantel’s access to madness, her ability to see into and empathise so closely with varying levels of mental illness and disorder. I suppose it was this same empathy and insight that enabled her to so beautifully give life to the characters in her stunning novel Wolf Hall. I felt in this book that I finally understood Muriel Axon, that I had greater access to her thoughts and deeper wonder of her multiple personalities, which are deliciously constructed by Mantel. While Muriel was only afforded one line of speech in the prequel, this book was very much concerned with her thoughts and her schemes.

While Mantel depicts the actions of Muriel and the other characters gleefully, there is always a moment where she brings the pain, the honesty, and the awfulness of their lives in to focus. I think this is another reason I found this book hard to laugh at. Much like another of her deeply dark novels Beyond Black, I found myself getting sucked in to the humour only to be sharply chastised with a reminder of horrific childhood abuse or deprivation. It doesn’t make for the most carefree reading, but it certainly is rewarding in the challenges it presents.
I find it amazing that this book works on so many levels, a comment on contemporary society, an insight into madness, while still managing to maintain the suspense of a a good action thriller. Hilary Mantel is most certainly one of my favourite authors.

Now reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

I recommend the full screen for viewing.

I feel like now is a good time to write about The Bell by Iris Murdoch, after a few months have passed and I’ve had time to think it over.
More importantly, I feel like now all I am left with is a feeling about the book, a physical and emotional reaction to the images and themes rather than to the plot or the characters.

When I was reading The Bell I kept thinking ‘I love this book, it is amazing’ and not really being able to figure out why. And then something changed. Perhaps it was going on holidays and being a distracted reader, but I lost focus with the book and it very quickly became a chore to finish. Which is a shame because it really is a beautiful novel, and like The Sea, The Sea, it stays with you and comes back at the strangest times.

In a way, I think the two novels are very similar as the feeling I now have about The Bell is the same feeling I have about The Sea, The Sea. The slow building tension, the heat of summer, the lethargic, sweaty tanned bodies, the slipping morals, the secrets and hostility and misunderstandings and most importantly, in the strangest way, the cool respite of the water. These are the memory I will keep of this book, not the characters names which I have already forgotten or the plottings over the bell recovered from the lake or the fussing of the minor characters.

Overall though I think it is the tragedy of the main characters that are the real story of The Bell. Trust broken between lovers, losing the innocence of youth and denying oneself true happiness because of social expectations. What I thought was the saddest element of the book was a man struggling to reconcile his relationship with God and his religious community with his love of men, which at this time were irreconcilable. I kept thinking the whole time that this conflict within himself need not be happening, that if God exists he would love him as his creation, and that just fifty years in the future life may have been easier for him socially at least.

The Bell is a beautiful book and well worth reading, just don’t waste it on the holidays.

Still reading: Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel.