Book review – Gretel Ehrlich – “This Cold Heaven” #amreading #20BooksOfSummer

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Well I’m under way finally with my 20 Books of Summer, and this one with its close print and historical narratives certainly didn’t give me a quick entry into the project this year! I was inspired to read this book by Bookish Beck’s review back in February 2018 – I ordered it quickly and then of course it sat on the TBR. But I’m very glad I picked it up and it was a very rewarding read about a place to which, like BB, I have no desire to go, but which I do like reading about! Oh, and I’ve realised my 20 Books list is a little more diverse than I thought, as this book is absolutely rooted in the lived experience of Greenlandic and other Inuit people, spending time with them, honouring their customs and sharing, rather than imposing on, their way of life.

Gretel Ehrlich – “This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland”

(10 March 2018)

A narrative of her seven years spent in Greenland for at least part of the time, a summer here, a dark, dark winter there, right up in the Inuit communities, living communally (very much so, with open toilets in hallways, naked drumming and a very basic life on the sleds), going on hunting expeditions and always conscious of and examining the pull between a modern and rapidly vanishing traditional culture, where those seeking to maintain the old ways have to present their case in the modern world and in some cases push back hard against it. The development of her friend Olejorgen, who has left Denmark to come to Greenland and learn to be a hunter describes a fascinating arc through the book: will he lose his professorial ways and become what he seeks to be?

As you’d kind of expect, quite a lot of dogs die (although this is not dwelt on in detail and some of the deaths are from preventable epidemics, showing another side to life in Greenland), and there’s a fairly upsetting scene with polar bear hunting later on in the book. However, even this doesn’t feel gratuitous if you accept that maintaining a way of life where you have to battle with the elements, one mistake can kill you very easily, and you and (first) the dogs are going to live off the meat while you make yourself a new pair of polar bear trousers is important and that this pretty small community should be allowed to survive as it wishes. It’s a difficult call to make and the author shows herself to be sympathetic while not glossing over the bad points of the culture and retaining self-reflection and critical thinking (she does get her head turned a bit by a hunky museum curator, however).

There are lots of passages describing the early 20th century explorer and ethnographer Knut Rasmusson – indeed, the impetus for her travels was reading his journals and she lugs the books around with her when all the rest of her luggage is lost. I didn’t personally find these as interesting as the passages about her own life and friendships, and I was glad when they petered out towards the end, however they did give a lot of interesting information, especially on the habit of picking up an Inuit wife for a journey, having a baby or two and then wondering what to do. I was fascinated by her reactions to the constant night and constant day of the two opposite seasons, written in perfect beautiful language, and then on a more practical level, I appreciated the epilogue from 2001 updating us on the various people we meet along the way, and I’m really glad I read this.


Now it’s on to my Iris Murdoch of the month, and I need to spend some solid time with that over the weekend! How are your 20BooksOfSummer (winter) coming along?

Book reviews – Joanne M. Harris – “The Gospel of Loki” and David Coles – “Chromatopia” plus book confessions @ShinyNewBooks @ThamesandHudson #amreading

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First off I need to tell you about “Chromatopia: An Illustrated History of Colour” by David Coles, which publishers Thames & Hudson were kind enough to send me to review for Shiny New Books.

This truly spectacular book would grace any coffee table with ease, but it’s more than just a pretty face, with fascinating facts in abundance and offers a good read to anyone interested in art, colour or indeed chemistry.

Read my full review over at Shiny. I’ve just had a look at Thames & Hudson’s autumn catalogue and there are some smashers in it, although I have a couple more from May and June to read and review before I can start frolicking amongst those!

Joanne M. Harris – “The Gospel of Loki”

(23 November 2018)

I bought this one because the lovely Annabookbel sent me the sequel, “The Testament of Loki” (which she didn’t finish, see her review here) and I am just unable to read the second part of a series first, it seems.

This is a really nicely done retelling of the Norse myths from the point of view of Loki. His voice is great, and the little details of swapping a Chaotic life in the form of a flame for a corporeal aspect that can feel all the senses give a depth to it that makes it not all just about stories. His motivation is laid out for us to see, and plausible, and he’s got a modern way with words while being firmly rooted in his context (a bit like the Marvel films, and of course it’s now hard to visualise the characters without seeing the film characters). He has to experience emotions, too, adding another layer. All the familiar tales are here, so there’s lots of nice recognition if you’ve basically been a bit obsessed by this stuff since you were 8 or so, but it’s all from his side of the story, so retains the interest. The mystery of who actually wants Ragnarok to start is a bit of a twist too far, perhaps, but it’s both competent and fun.

Incoming

Oh dear. You’ve seen the state of the TBR and noted that I can’t have cleared much from it if I’m reviewing my second book of the month. But then this happened.

Somehow Jon Bloomfield’s “Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham” got itself published without me hearing about it. How did that happen? When I heard about it, I just had to have it right away. It’s got at least one person I know in it, and looks just so well done and fascinating. It also adds to the diversity of my TBR, which I’ve been a bit concerned about.

More diversity with Japanese novel “Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata, about a woman struggling to keep the way of life and work she wants while being buffeted by expectations from her family and employers. This was one Meg was given for Christmas and I apparently expressed a need to read it, so there it was when I met her for her birthday!

And then Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”. Ali had a du Maurier reading week recently to celebrate their joint birthdays. She had a competition to win a copy of “Rebecca” and one other book, and as I’ve managed never to read this novel, I entered, along with a few other people. And then, to everyone’s slight embarrassment, I won. Ali shared with me at the weekend that she drew me with the first random number generator run, and was horrified, so ran it again … and I won again, at which point she decided the fates wanted me to read it. Fortunately she’s said I can do it for DDM Reading Week NEXT year!

Currently reading

Once I’ve shoehorned these onto the shelf, I’ll get back to reading the first of my 20 Books of Summer, “This Cold Heaven” by Gretel Erlich, a fascinating book about her long-term love affair with Greenland. It’s very absorbing so far, although I have the thought of getting to my next Iris Murdoch before too long hovering gently in the background …

Happy reading everyone! How are your 20Books going?

Book review and blog tour – Jeremy Mynott – “Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words” @WolfsonHistory #WolfsonHistoryPrize

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Rather than a full shadow panel who all read all the books, and not entirely like a classic blog tour where lots of people read the same book, I’ve been honoured to take part in the blog tour celebrating the shortlist of the Wolfson Prize, which awards £40,000 to the best new work of non-fiction in the UK. Here’s some information on the prize:

From a major new biography of Oscar Wilde, to an entirely fresh take on Queen Victoria as Empress of India, and from a history of the human impact of the Holocaust, to an exploration of the role of birds in the Ancient World, the books shortlisted for the most prestigious history prize, and most valuable non-fiction prize in the UK, each combine excellence in historical research with readability.

The Wolfson History Prize 2019 shortlist is: Building Anglo-Saxon England by John Blair, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice by Mary Fulbrook, Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson by Margarette Lincoln, Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words by Jeremy Mynott, Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis, and Empress: Queen Victoria and India by Miles Taylor

… and you can find out more here.

I was sent a lovely hardback copy of Jeremy Mynott’s “Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words”, published by Oxford University Press, and here I am, next up on the blog tour (see below my review for a list of all the participants and their books – I’ve been sharing all the reviews on Twitter through the week).

Jeremy Mynott – “Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words”

“Confiding” is a term used in birdwatching for the behaviour of a bird which will allow the approach of humans to observe it. That blue tit blithely feeding off the peanut hanger as you potter about on the patio, the robin on your fork handle or the heron you run past on the canal are all confiding. I can extend the metaphor to this book, in which an acknowledged expert on the relationship between humans and birds takes a gentle, close and approachable look at how birds were seen, experienced and written about by the Greeks and Romans. Packed full of illustrations and quotations, if it doesn’t have the hard-hitting nature of some of the books on the list, it’s hugely engaging and teaches us an awful lot about birds, humanity and the ancients, speaking perhaps more softly than some, with a wry smile and a little joke here and there.

Mynott is both a classical scholar and a writer on birds, and his love and deep knowledge of both areas shine through in this fascinating and rather wonderful book. From the preface, where he describes the variety of birds to be found in Athens and Rome to the epilogue, which pulls together feelings on the environment ancient and modern and shows how our experiences of nature are both different and similar, we follow a well-ordered and clear path through an exploration of the way birds were markers of the seasons, time and weather; their exploitation as a natural resource to farm and eat; birds as pets and entertainment (including a flamingo zoo!); their examination as the objects of wonder and then science; their appearance as symbols and in dreams; and their role as messengers between people and the spiritual dimension. He states early on that his aim is

using birds as a prism through which to explore both the similarities and the often surprising differences between early conceptions of the natural world and our own. (p. vi)

and he also describes an aim to contribute to the cultural history of birds and to introduce those not experienced in the classics to this time in Western history. I think he achieves these aims very well.

Through the book, references and often substantial quotations are pulled from over 100 classical authors, all of which have been translated anew by the author for the book. The structure is really clear, although he’s at pains to point out that there are other ways to structure the material and, indeed, other material that could be brought in.

Mynott is also at pains to ensure that we don’t map our modern views and attitudes directly onto those of the Greeks and Romans in a like-for-like way, as this is impossible. He starts off by explaining the Greeks were the first to describe the concept of nature, but is clear this doesn’t mean quite the same as our conception. He is academic, precise and intelligent, but never talks over the heads of his readers – although there is much for anyone with an interest in trying to work out which bird is being referred to where or in the struggles of translation. One example of the former will suffice – he spends quite a lot of time trying to work out what actual species Catullus’ girlfriend Lesbia’s “sparrow” actually was. He is clear that the Ancients probably had a closer relationship to nature than many of us do, with so many species and their behaviours being mentioned suggesting that audiences were familiar with a wide range of birds.

He is also careful to note that what we  might see as superstition or over-reliance on augury and religion is not necessarily so different from our need to wear certain clothes and engage in particular behaviours on specific days of the year, and there are some lovely examples of bird-related folk sayings that are still in use today – and probably “believed” to the same degree. Arguments for the value of the natural world are examined in their context and also against modern ideas.

The author never seems to mind a mystery – in fact, he highlights and embraces them. Why is the sport of falconry hardly mentioned in Ancient texts, and why are butterflies almost never written about, even though both appear in illustrations? Mynott examines the various theories put forward but accepts that there is no actual answer, and I like him even more for that. He is definitely a guide rather than a lecturer.

The end of the book holds one more smile for the avid birdwatcher. A lovely illustration of a confiding bird in an identifiable plant is described as a “little brown job” whose actual species cannot be identified. A lovely little in-joke, but again benign and inclusive.

Thank you to Ben from Midas PR for arranging for a copy of the book to be sent to me for an honest review.

Book review – Balli Kaur Jaswal – “The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters” #TheShergillSisters @HarperFiction #NetGalley

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I was really excited and fortunate to be offered this book to read by the publishers because I’d read and reviewed this author’s last book, “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” when it came out. I thought because of the number of non-fiction books I’ve got to review I was at risk of missing the publication date of 13 June, but actually this turned out to be the completely perfect book to read on my travels to and from and rest periods around my marathon this last weekend. An intelligent page-turner with great characters and an author with good technical writing skills made this book a must-read, and I sat and devoured the last few chapters when I got home!

Balli Kaur Jaswal – “The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters”

(21 May 2019)

Like the author’s last book, this novel is set in the second-generation South Asian community in London, but now moving further afield to explore their roots. Fresh, funny and moving, you’ll get to know some great and diverse characters in this fantastic read.

We open with Sita Kaur Shergill, dying in hospital, overhearing a woman dictating a letter to her children to read after she’s passed away, and getting an idea which will finally pull her three daughters together into one unit (maybe). Rajni, the eldest, has always been the good girl (or has she?), a second mother to submissive Shirina and overdramatic Jezmeen. Now she’s facing a family bombshell, while Shirina is suffering in the  marriage she arranged online, and Jezmeen has just lost her job for accidentally attacking an exotic fish (yes, really, no gratuitous violence, though). The sisters were never close, and now they’re separated by time, place and events, until Sita’s final wishes force them to do a pilgrimage together through India to various important locations for Sikhism.

While Sita’s single motherhood then cancer diagnosis moved her towards religion and ritual, the three girls are more sceptical. Each has their own worries and they revert very quickly back to their old relationships, as adult siblings so often do. The two who are married have whispered phone conversations with their husbands, and Shirina appears to be holding something back.

Jaswal is also holding something back and she does this very skilfully, taking the book up a level from the chick-litty read the above might imply. We know something’s happened at Sita’s deathbead early on, and we also know something happened when she and Rajni went to India last, but these events are only revealed very slowly to the reader and/or whichever sister isn’t party to whichever pieces of information. It’s cleverly done and leaves you wanting to read on, but everything comes together convincingly and without annoying plot holes. As the book moves forward, we have a few flashbacks and understand everything, and then the epilogue is very satisfying.

The book doesn’t hesitate to cover serious issues – rape culture in India, protests, #MeToo as it applies to South Asia, infertility, arranged marriages and multi-generational living, children defying their parents AND bad grammar (the last leads to a hilarious and heart-warming scene near the end of the novel which I absolutely loved). Both white Europeans and those of Asian origin finding themselves in India are gently skewered but there’s nothing mean about the book, which is very warm and often very funny, too.

A great read which is for you if you like reading about families and siblings, about moving continents and finding your home, and about support and togetherness when things get tough.

Thank you to HarperCollins for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Liverpool Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon race report

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On Sunday 26 May 2019 I completed the Liverpool Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. This is quite a hard race report to write because I didn’t hugely enjoy it, but I don’t want to come across bitter or as a failed slow runner who wasn’t prepared. I worked hard at my training but on the day was disappointed both by the race and by what I was able to do with my training.

*** EDIT I have received confirmation from the organisers that there was no 10 mile 13:00 per mile cut-off time that was told to me by at least two other runners. What would you have done, though? Taken them at their word.

The training

I’d had a good training campaign although it did change quite a bit. As usual, I plotted out my long runs by weekend, then added in two runs or two plus recovery to get a total of 20 per week, with the occasional tempo run or speed work in there. I also did yoga once or twice a week and unfortunately missed strength training as was under the physio for a glute issue for a chunk of the middle and trying to do my exercises for that. I had a light cold and missed my last long run so did a 20 two weeks before the marathon, meaning I’d done one 18, two 20s and a 22, all at below 6 hour marathon pace. I’d tapered carefully and had one bad run on Thursday but was happy overall.

It’s worth noting that I’m also preparing for Race to the Stones Day 2 in July, so needed this to be my B race, and not to flog myself so hard I need too long in recovery before continuing my training.

Travelling up, expo, pant purchase

We got the train up with a few other people from club then I left Matthew at the train station and walked down to the Expo. I already had my number but wanted to pick up my tshirt in case my size wasn’t left at the end of the race. I saw the Gu stand and found they had chocolate mint available but didn’t buy anything. Ran into Nick from club but was on my own going out, so neglected to have a picture in front of one of the Beatles or RnR themed backdrops. Oh well.

The stage is set

Collected Matthew then we walked the extra mile to our apartment – perfectly fine but quite sparse if you wanted to actually cook (we requested a can opener and a hair dryer and made do with the rest). Went to the amazingly cheap Jack’s supermarket for any supplies we hadn’t brought (I had tuna and a bag of my cereal for the morning all measured out) and having come back and unpacked realised I hadn’t brought enough (under)pants so walked to Matalan and got some chocolate milk in Iceland, too.

Matthew cooked tuna pasta and reserved some tomato sauce and mushrooms for a recovery meal. We had a reasonably early night and amazingly slept really well!

Pre race

The race started at 10 so I had my pre-measured breakfast at 7 and was quite calm and relaxed until I found the pen I’d brought wouldn’t write on the back of my number! I managed to scribble Matthew’s number and Penicillin on it and hoped if I did collapse they’d find my parkrun ICE cards on me!

Kit lay. Black top as it was due to be cool and damp.

I’d brought two sets of kit and worn my elderly Guide 9s in case I lost anything but went for black and shorter shorts and left the hat. Wore a pacamac down and gave it to Matthew. We walked the 2 miles to the start and found Ruth (centre) and Bernice, who were both running the half.

We got a place near the start with Bernice’s husband, son and cousin and managed to see both of them through, as well as Afshin from club, plus two Bournville runners and some other local club folk.

Then it was time to meet the other marathon runners from club (all fast boys) plus Sedate Lady Trudie and club captain Barbara, both of whose husbands were running. We missed Colin out of our group pic but managed to find him later.

Nick, Dave, Paul R, Paul G, Liz, Steve, Tim (by Matthew)

Paul R was doing his 300th marathon so they gave him number 300! This was announced over the tannoy to much excitement (and I got a lot of worth out of mentioning this on the way round).

A quick wee (portaloo queues not too bad) and I went to get in my pen, way back at corrall 10. The lads were ahead of me of course. I ran into Jo Yarnall from Aldridge at this point, she knows my friend Dave (that always happens) and had spotted my running top. I’d planned to be in the front of the pen as the 6 hour cut-off started when the last person crossed the line. But when I got there, although I had number 10163 and had assumed numbers were sequential, they basically started with a 10 if you were in pen 10 (afterwards I discovered just over 3,000 people started the whole marathon). So there were about 60 people at most in my pen. I found the 5:30 pacer and told her I planned to stick with her for 6 miles to front-load myself against the sweeper vans with some 12:30 minute miles then drop back.

Off we started and here’s the course

Liverpool Rock n Roll marathon course

The half marathoners had gone to the south while we went off north for 9 miles, so there was no clash. I saw blogger Renee at 2 miles, such a cheering sight, hooray! I wanted to see the lads on the out and back but they were in the park at the top as we passed it. I was running with an amazing chap called Andy from Guernsey for most of the race on and off, a real showboater and ham, which I love. I also started with a very nice lady from Wales, who I saw on and off all the way round.

Because there was no crowd to feed off. Nothing really at all. The odd person and some people near the music stages. But very very low support, which was not what I had been led to expect.

Up to 10 miles – panic and horror

Trotting along under some illuminated underpasses and round football grounds, I kept ahead of the 5:30 pacer. But then some women who had done it last year told me there was a 10-mile cut-off at 13:00 minute mile pace (bearing in mind that the advertised 6 hour cut-ff is about 13:45 minute mile pace) and that last year they’d been threatened with sweeping and had to push back. This really scared me, and I had to make the horrible decision to push the pace to avoid this, knowing full well that I could not sustain that pace comfortably and would pay for it later on. It’s one thing to make a mistake with pacing, but doing this knowing the consequences was a bit heart-breaking, but not as much as being swept.

*** Note the organisers have told me and confirmed it was not the case that there was an extra cut-off

Miles 1 to 10 were between 11:50 and 12:43 for each mile (only one under 12). I tried to keep around 12:30 to protect myself but I did know this was likely not to be sustainable. I hit 10 miles at 2:04:34 – phew. But not to help matters, the mile markers were all out by about 0.2 of a mile (under) and the 10k mat was about a mile askew – I got a split of 1:02:00 for that but my watch says 1:18:00! I’m glad I wasn’t that much too fast as that would have been a 6-minute 10k PB … At some point we went through town by the Cavern Club and it was very very unclear where we were going, and I asked a marshal to go back down the course to help direct. I also had to ask someone to move out of the way as I was trying to run the marathon!

I did have a nice time seeing Liz from Malvern, Andy and various others, with Jo appearing from time to time. And at mile 9 Trudie and Barbara had popped out of their hotel at just the right moment to cheer me on! I took a lucozade sport and put a load of it in in my softflask of raspberry tailwind to top it up I had a gel at 1:15 and then every hour.

Miles 10-13

As soon as I hit 10 I started to drop my pace, so over 12 mins per mile and some power walking up hills. There were cobbles and hard paving and I slowed to help a lady and her friend, one sobbing, one consoling and tried to help Hannah get cheered up and on. We then approached Sefton Park where Matthew was, but not where I was, so I missed him (the route was confusing here). I slowed to phone him but hit 13.1 at 2:43:?? which is faster than a few of my half-marathon races. Let’s see it all drop off …

Boom. Not in a good way.

Miles 13-22

Park park park more park, I saw Matthew twice at an obelisk and had two bites of banana at 3:15 run time. We went up and back to Penny Lane where a stereo system in a van was playing just that song over and over! I ran into Jo there and she kindly took my photo (I took one for her, too). My only photo en route as I was concentrating on pushing then hanging on. As we ran up this longish out and back I saw my friend from the photo a day group Tanya’s sister in law, Salome, we’d tried to meet in the pen then there she was and a HUG!

Penny Lane

I saw a lot of different folk as we worked our way down to the river bank again. Jo, Andy, Hannah, some ladies from Sittingbourne and one from Ashford (go Kent), a couple of blokes, a lovely lady in a Harry Potter tshirt, and some power walkers in bras raising money for a breast cancer charity. It was  grind – I was OK but tired and walk breaks got more frequent – when I did run I was a bit brisker than normal which shows up in my time being a few minutes outside Birmingham where I ran almost continuously.

Kudos to the bands, marshals and water/gel stations, all still going as we went past in dribs and drabs. It was pretty lonely when I wasn’t trying to drag myself along with others.

Miles 22-end – wheels fall OFF

Oh, my goodness. We turned onto the waterfront and the headwind was horrendous. It was buffeting us and while I could probably have run more if this was my only race and I could destroy myself but it was SO disheartening. I had running in my legs, but then it was concrete paving with cobbled inserts running across, too.

It was here I came across Graham Lewis from Liverpool originally but living in Crewe. He’d done the race five times before and confirmed this was awful. We stuck together along the last few miles, which saved me really and helped him, too. I had a hug from the bra ladies when I broke down crying and saw Jo and Andy was there, too. Love the back of the pack for this. Graham’s girlfriend who had done the mile appeared near the end and ran alongside us.

We could see the finish. And there were Bernice and family, Trudie and husband Dave who got a big PB at 3:26, and Barbara and Matthew. Yes!

Graham Lewis and Liz finish the marathon. Picture by Trudie.

See how lonely, but running strong, actually. As promised, I got our folk to shout for Graham, too, which spurred him on and we crossed the line together. Had our medals put round our necks, which was a lovely touch, and there was no goody bag but bananas, water, haribo and bars you could pick up as you wanted, which I think was better and greener than that deodorant and leaflets you usually get. Andy from Guernsey had waited to see us through and I managed to hug a chap from Run Birmingham and see some other people I’d been running with, which was lovely as anything.

Slightly stunned Liz saying all the says so she doesn’t just stand and cry. (by Bernice)

Liz and Bernice with our cool medals

Chip time 5:55:28

Overall 3047 / 3116

Age category 198 / 208

Gender 1026 / 1073

Bernice had smashed her half and finished really strong – I’m so proud of her as she’s had some tricky times recently with her running. Ruth had had to leave but had had a good race and finished a year of 17 half-marathons in aid of the Alzheimer’s Charity.

Home and food

I had the rest of my nana and a choc milk and we walked slowly home – good to have a stretch. I missed the club get together as needed to feed and rest. Two weetabix when we got in, a shower and owwwww a new rub on my right-hand lower back presumably from my shorts. Then grazed and went to bed at 8. Set an alarm and got up at 11pm to have a proper meal, as I’d finished at 4.10 and knew I’d have to eat properly. I did pasta with the left over sauce, spinach and some cheese then sat up for an hour then back to bed. Slept till 6 and then 8.30, really well again and not too sore.

Recovery day

We walked down to the docks very slowly, taking some photos as we went, including visiting 62 Falkner Street, the scene of the first A House In Time TV series by David Olusoga, which was very exciting.

Then we went to a lovely cafe to meet Renee, her husband Ron and two York runners she knew from a Facebook group, all lovely people and there was much chat about the support etc which made me feel a bit better about being disappointed.

Ron, Nikki, Renee, Liz, Charlotte by Matthew

We went and found the Beatles statue we’d run past on Sunday

and to cut a long story short, went for a Pizza Express then a look round the docks and ran into my running club friend Suki and his wife and whole family (not up for the races, just random) and Renee and Ron again and then I had a cuppa and saw some people with Remix medals we’d seen at the Beatles statue. As you do.

Summary

Organisation was good, the pens worked and there were no pinch points. It was much smaller in numbers than expected, leaving me feeling lost and exposed. The 10 mile cut-off was cruel, if it was true (I have asked the organisers to confirm: I did meet someone who’d been made to take a short cut and didn’t know how long her race was going to be). If it wasn’t true, I bust a gut for nothing. If the wind had been less terrible I’d have PB’d but it wasn’t and I didn’t. Bands, water stations and marshals stayed to the end THANK YOU and the camaraderie was amazing but I would not do it again.

 

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Sea, The Sea” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Gosh, it becomes hard sometimes to review these books, so well-known, even Booker Prize winners in this case. The writer of the introduction doesn’t help in this case, having drawn out the thread of the poet Milarepa, mentioned by James Arrowby in his ‘confession’. I am trying to just write about my reactions, the themes, the connections to other books and my feelings as I re-read – quite complicated and different feelings again in this book’s case. I’m so honoured that so many folk are still along for the ride with me and look forward to your comments and links as ever.

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me, or of course some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “The Sea, The Sea”

(31 December 2018)

I think this book has the best CLOSING paragraph in Murdoch, doesn’t it?

My God, that bloody casket has fallen on the floor! Some people were hammering in the next flat and it fell of its bracket. The lid has come off and whatever was inside it has certainly got out. Upon the demon-ridden pilgrimage of human life, what next I wonder? (p. 538)

And really, even though the last section seems disjointed and jerky, messy and contingent, the whole book does seem to have been leading up to this point. Will Charles have learned any truths as he approaches whatever comes next?

My main and abiding thought about this book this time round (well, there are two: the other will come later) is that, as we read the ‘diaries’ and ‘notes’ of a retired theatre director who has come to the sea for peace and quiet, away from the theatre and its people, comes across his first love, tries and fails to rescue her and almost slips into oblivion, rescued by his cousin and his Tibetan ‘tricks’, it’s an amazing tour de force of getting inside one person’s head and detailing in fine and precise lines the exact way in which he fools himself, slips away from reality and bends everything he senses round to the theories he holds in his mind. Time and again, he will see something perfectly obvious and think and think over it until he’s bent it out of all recognition and convinced himself that his interpretation is correct, from the lack of post over a couple of days to the matter of who pushed him into the sea.

The other impression I have is of how horrible marriage is constantly, wearingly, described as being. No marriage is happy (even the ‘perfect’ one collapses) and the only way to be happy appears to be to shack up with someone you can never have more than a friendship relationship with, due to different orientations. This hadn’t struck me quite so forcefully before (but it’s there in a lot of the novels, isn’t it?) and this is presumably part of my long-running and rather frustrating problem with reading about marriage breakups and unhappinesses since I myself got married (which is five years ago now: come on, brain!). The worst thing that happens, though, is when Charles listens to Hartley and Ben arguing and then tells Hartley. Who of us who are paired would want someone to base their whole opinion of our marriage on some private bickering?! I really feel her pain when she finds out.

Anyway, there is also a lot more in this book. You want water themes, you’ve got water themes, with the ever-changing sea, its attendant monsters and cauldrons, its monsters and forgiving seals (what do you think the monster is? Expanded worm or acid flash-back, or just his psyche come to haunt him?). I know I don’t like to relate the author to the work too much but IM’s love of wild swimming does inform the descriptions. There’s not only the sea of course but all sorts of mists and rains going on, adding to the atmosphere in that special Murdochian way.

Stones are another theme throughout. Charles is collecting them from the start and gives important ones to Hartley (who abandons hers) and James (who keeps his, having asked for it). Charles puts them round the edge of the lawn, James creates a complex mandala which gets trampled (life getting in the way of a higher consciousness?). Hair is suitably fuzzy, frizzy and hyacinthine.  Rosina has a hairdo that comes out as “a rounded segmented composition which looked both complex and casual” (p. 335-6) which is so Murdochian you’d recognise it as such anywhere, wouldn’t you?

Talking of appearances, I note again that IM is very cruel to the ageing woman, or is so through her narrator, with everyone coming in for it, from Lizzie (“She is still quite good-looking, though she has allowed herself to become untidy and out of condition” (p. 45) through Clement’s death mask and Rosina’s ageing to Hartley, the “bearded lady” with her messy lipstick, and a face that’s “haggard and curiously soft and dry” (p. 122).

Of course we have to have someone in a garden, peering through the curtains, and Charles gives us that scene, even adding the farce of sitting on a rose bush. He also spies on his own house and James is found outside in his garden. We don’t have many siblings, but we do have the dual couples of Charles and James and their respective parents as a centrepiece, and there is doubling and echoing around them, even to the fact that both cause deaths specifically out of vanity.

Portents come throughout the book – the chimneypiece at Shruff End is full of demons and can’t be dusted, and the sea is pretty well always dangerous, so we know it’s going to get somebody (the locals act as a mournful chorus in that respect). When he’s got Hartley in the house (later in the book than I remembered), “I had wakened some sleeping demon, set going some deadly machine; and what would be would be” (p. 334). Buddhism is a big theme for James and his jade animals make it through to the end, always a sign of someone of interest.

But there’s humour too, in Charles’ dealings with the locals (“‘Dog kennel?’ I said to the Post Office lady” (p. 43), his meals, as mentioned, and the good-humoured fun poked at those who like to sing. There are asides, too: “as I could hwardly suppose that Rosina had arranged for me to be haunted by a sea monster I decided not to mention it” (p. 112). “Si biscuitus disintegrat … that’s the way the cookie crumbles” (p. 365) is small enough to forget then be cheered by every read. There’s also the shock of the phone ringing, and of the phone engineer arriving, and the laundry man.

The food is a special theme of this book, although unpleasant meals have been had before – they add a good note of humour to the book and there is in fact a cook book based on them. I love how the shop woman chases Charles down the street with news of fresh apricots late in the narrative.

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? Charles, director and serial marriage wrecker appears to be the enchanter of the piece, and is described as a demon. Gilbert even says, “You’ve always been a magnet to me” (p. 259). There are two contenders for saint in his father and James. His father has the advantage in saints of being less fortunate than his brother, and maybe James has sought to counteract that as he seems to have worked on his own enlightenment and makes more of an effort in his goodness than his uncle Adam. He’s learned Tibetan ‘tricks’ and makes an effort to tell the truth at all times, whereas Adam has retreated from the world and been mild, although he is described as having “… a positive moral quality of gentleness” (p. 30) and being “something quite else, something special” (p. 64). I actually found James a more attractive character this time round, perhaps because of his failings, especially in his friendship with Lizzie, and with his loss of his servant. Of course Charles in his desperate jealousy thinks of James as an enchanter: “James, who seemed to be a centre of magnetic attraction to the other three” (p. 353). I think they’re drawn to him in a different way, however (although he does exert fascination over people AND has a very tidy house …). But he does get in a “muddle” over Lizzie, which disappoints Charles greatly: “… this sort of squalid muddle. It’s a kind of ordinary sly human stupidity which I was foolish enough to imagine you didn’t suffer from” (p. 440). But James prevails with his slightly drunken sermon:

Goodness is giving up power and acting upon the world negatively. The good are unimaginable. (p. 478)

In addition to this stuff of demons and saints, there’s a strong theme around passing on or absorbing pain, the idea of ‘Ate’ which comes through in so much of IM’s work. Charles is the only person Hartley can inflict her ruined life on (therefore making her not the saint, just someone who is treated extraordinarily horribly). James talks persuasively about “Letting the poor ghost go” and not inflicting himself on Hartley any more (p. 379). Charles clearly states that while he believed it was Ben who attacked him, “Ben had carried my guilt” over Titus (p. 431). But then Titus carries away Hartley’s guilt: “Titus was the redeemer, he had vanished, taking her guilt with him” (p. 461). One important point here is made by Ben, and seems to pop the balloon of the entire book: “‘It’s no use talking,’ said Ben. ‘Like in the war, Something happens, you go on. You got to, eh?'” (p. 452)

As well as the saints and demons there is a strong thread about happiness running through the book:

One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats. (p. 9)

I love the small nods to other books found in this one. Will and Adelaide Boase from “Bruno’s Dream” are mentioned early on and then near the end, too. Rosina is said to have never been able to play Honor Klein, a nod to the play of “A Severed Head”. And then, one point I hadn’t noticed before, there’s an actor called Erasmus Blick. Could he be Calvin’s son? Given the names, it seems plausible. As my husband said, she does like to leave “Easter Eggs” for the discerning and careful reader! Peregrine’s step-daughter Angela is a near-copy of Julian from “The Black Prince” and makes a big effort to become Charles’ version of Julian – to his credit he does resist this. James has left the army under a cloud, which is a little theme which does crop up a good few times, if not in every book, harking back to other slightly ambiguous figures. The telephone engineer may have been reassigned from London, where he bothered Hilary Burde! When James is fussing over returning to London and doesn’t get round to phoning James or the taxi man and considers getting the later train, we’re back with Bradley Pearson, stuck in his flat out of indecision in “The Black Prince”.

I think a big point of why this narrator, unreliable and horrible as he is, comes out better than Bradley from “The Black Prince” might be this fact that he tries to resist the temptation of Angela and has actually learned and changed by the end of the book, hasn’t he? In History Chapter 4 he even addresses the fact that we might see him as an unreliable narrator, not something I recall Bradley doing: “(though, as James would say, what indeed are facts?)” (p. 257).  Looking back at my re-reading of this book, it’s more horrible than I remembered, but James is a more satisfying character, so I think it balances out, and it’s certainly a worthy and understandable Booker-winner.


Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

Book review – Caroline Criado Perez – “Invisible Women” @ShinyNewBooks

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Invisible WomenI read this one in April but my review is up on Shiny New Books today. This was a HARD book to review – so much in it (so much, SO MUCH) and also it seems to have been written and chatted about and reviewed everywhere (but mostly by women, hmmm …)

Here’s an excerpt from my review – do click over and read the whole thing because it took me aaaaages to put together and because Shiny New Books is a brilliant resource and we want it to keep going and sharing all these wonderful books, don’t we.

We all know the premise of this book by now, right? Because the world is designed for men, women end up in, variously, ill-fitting protective clothing, taking drugs that don’t work the same for them, running the risk of worse accidents because most crash-test dummies are male, and having heart attacks that no one notices because they’re not like men’s heart attacks. Oh, and there’s something about snow clearance in Scandinavia. In fact, a lot of the book is fascinatingly about urban planning and other more prosaic aspects, and all the more rich and meaningful for that. You’ll also be relieved to note that the author does offer suggestions for changes, and highlights where good work is at least being done, rather than just wailing into the abyss about the current situation. Read more.

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