Kevin Powers – A Shout in the Ruins

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Not for the fainthearted, or for ostriches

Like many, I had been overwhelmed and lacerated, by the reading of Powers first book, The Yellow Birds, detailing the experience of the war in Iraq. Powers had experienced that conflict, as a machine gunner. That powerful book was far from being any kind of glorification of war. Powers, a wonderful writer, pulls no punches, does not gloss over the awfulness of conflict, or the kinds of glorified lies countries tell themselves to encourage young men to enlist

A Shout in the Ruins, his second book, explores no less important, destructive, shaming themes which should be faced. He looks at racism, and its foundations in the history of slavery in the States, and the long shadow that has cast, and still casts.

Rawls could see up and down the old man’s arms. They were lined with mark after mark of whip and brine, a topography of the passage of time and pain one on top of the other, a map in miniature of ridgeline and ravine going up into his shirtsleeves in an uninterrupted pattern

This is a complex story, taking place over more than 100 years of American history. The central character is George, a quiet, reflective black man. And on his story, traced from the 1860s, George, now in his 90s. moving towards death (so his ‘present’ is the 1950s) is keen to unearth a mystery about his own origins, as an abandoned child. Those origins lie in the stories of those who had cared for him before he was ‘abandoned’ and why, indeed, abandonment happened. A story of slaves before the outbreak of war. In his 1950s present, American is still a segregated society, a society, effectively practising apartheid, in the South. And the continuing story of casual, unthinking, as well as deliberate racism continues beyond George’s death, in the later story of a young woman he meets, right at the end of his life, and her future, which includes someone damaged by one of America’s later conflicts

Whoever said a rifle on a wall was an opportunity for suspense must have been European. As if there would ever be a question of its getting fired or not in America. The gun goes off when the line gets crossed, and the line got crossed a long time ago, when we were naked and wandered the savannah and slept beneath the baobab trees. When is simply a matter of how long it takes to get it out of the holster, how long it takes the bullet to arrive. Perhaps days or weeks or months, perhaps one’s whole life, but these are questions of distance and trajectory, of time and physics, and not of possibility

This is an extremely difficult book to read at times, but it is one which I felt I had to read. As in Yellow Birds, punches are not pulled. Powers does not labour or over describe the awful violence of racism, rather, sentences are casually dropped in, rather like unexpected land mines, leaving the reader shocked and reeling. The throwaway information about a slave who had run away, and, on recapture, his ‘master’ deliberately damaged his feet, so the young man could not ever run away again, but would only be able to shuffle and hobble – still work, but not run

This is a deeply, deeply, despair filled book. There are wonderfully drawn, complex character, some are of a repellent, vicious nature, many are normally flawed, going along almost unthinkingly with the evil which may be the way a society is structured, others question the wrong, and there are those who are like beacons of what it might mean to strive to be ‘human-kind’ But the lives of those the reader cares about will inevitably also be lives that experience pain, loss, grief

Another major theme is the importance of home and community. The book opens with the destruction of property and community by those seeking to ‘develop prime sites’ and spools back to earlier acts of destruction and violence towards community and home, done by those whose only care is the acquisition of personal wealth and power. Powers makes sure we are aware he is not just writing about America’s past, but about all our presents.

I had some reservations. As I found, at times, with Yellow Birds, which changed points of view a lot – whose story was being followed, at any point – I wished he had been a little more linear. At times there are just too many characters to keep track of, and the narrative might have been pruned, shaped more, to allow trajectory of story to be clearer, the strength of his writing itself to shine out more. There was also a question I was left with, which was unanswered, part of the quest George himself was trying to get to the bottom of, but, then, as I continued to think about this book, long after I had finished reading it – life is also full of little pockets of mystery which never do completely get solved

I received this as a copy for review from the publishers, via NetGalley

It has taken some time for me to write a review, as I needed some time, and distance, to evaluate my rating. The length of time the book stayed with me has meant that the reservations during reading itself, retreated

A Shout in The Ruins UK
A Shout in The Ruins USA

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Patricia Highsmith – Deep Water

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A creepy, violent, witty tale of a marriage gone feral

I’m very fond of the dark precision of Patricia Highsmith’s writing, and particularly appreciate the discomfort she causes for her readers, in the character of Tom Ripley. Ripley is an amoral man, in fact, quite evil, but possessed of such charm that the reader, shamefully, wants the horrific man to succeed in his casually violent endeavours

Deep Water, originally published in ’57, after the first Ripley, but well before later outings, is a stand alone novel, a portrait of a chillingly dysfunctional marriage. Under the lens of Highsmith’s acerbic, mordant, cynical eye it is both addictively, compulsively tension building, extremely nasty …and very funny. Whilst neither protagonist – husband Vic, weirdly obsessive compulsive, wife Melinda, aggressive drunk, sexually voracious and irresistible to anyone she sets her sights on, despite her deep unpleasantness – is the kind of person with the flexibility, generosity of spirit or interest in ‘other’ to stand much of a chance to make a healthy relationship with anyone, their individual flaws create a nuclear wasteland of destructive fallout, once brought into contact with each other.

Highsmith sets her theatre of marital war in American Dream small town suburbia, a scene of neighbourliness, polite parties, small professional businesses and vaguely arty interests. Vic, whose main enthusiasm is for the rearing and studying of snails (!), is the owner of an independent publishing company, producing high quality niche work, beautifully presented, local history, poetry imprints and the like. He is very well liked by most of the long-term small-town residents, as though he is of a somewhat introspective disposition, he is helpful and community minded. The local community takes care of its own, and is a little parochial, not taking that kindly to incomers.

Melinda is viewed with less favour. Most of Vic’s friends are aware that Melinda likes incomers a lot – or at least, MALE incomers. Rather too much, in fact. Something she makes no effort to hide. Instead she flaunts her come-hither, blowsy seductiveness in public. Part of the pleasure she gets from this, is the public humiliation of her husband, the fact that everyone is pretty aware that Vic is cuckolded, again and again.

What puzzles and discomfits the community is the fact that Vic never challenges the lovers, nor appears to be jealous, or disturbed by his wife’s loud, rather crude flaunting of herself.

One of Melinda’s earlier public affairs was with a man, now returned to New York, who has been mysteriously murdered, perpetrator and motive unknown.

Seeing a chance to unsettle any future paramours Melinda might set her sights on, Vic tells one prospective lover that HE had been the man’s murderer, setting in train a series of deliciously dark, distastefully funny acts of Highsmithian violence and impending violence

Although neither Vic nor Melinda are the kind of characters to excite the reader’s empathy, disturbed, disturbing Vic is the one most readers will engage with, and even, with some discomfort, root for. Melinda is just too unpleasant, too competitive and dismissive of other women, too careless of her daughter’s happiness or wellbeing. Vic, whatever his rather cold fish, creepy weirdness, is liked, and is actually a kind man, especially towards those less well placed in society. His particular selfishness and self-obsession is really only problematic within his marriage. He could perhaps have made a ‘good enough’ partnership with someone else. It is unfortunate that he is a man of extremely low sexual drive, married to a woman whose libido is extremely high

…he had waited for fear to come, for panic, for guilt, regret at least….He had found himself thinking of a pleasant day in his childhood when he had won a prize in geography class for making the best model of an Eskimo igloo village using half eggshells for igloos and spun glass for snow. Without consciously realizing it he had felt absolutely secure. Secure from detection….He had such slow reactions to everything. Physical danger. Emotional blows. Sometimes his reactions were weeks late, so that he had a hard time attaching them to their causes.

I was steered towards this satisfying psychological thriller by Jacqui from Jacquiwine, who recommended this highly, and thought I would like it a lot. And she was right

…and as for American Pie, well, there are some odd resonances so that the song bobbed up, occasionally, in my consciousness, as I was thinking about the framing of my review….

IF you go on to read the book, or HAVE read it, maybe those resonances will have you nodding in recognition too

Finally…..much fun and queasy stuff goes on around Vic’s fascination with snails, and some of the marital discord too (I had my sympathies, a little, with Melinda here) I DID think of including a clip, even a video, of snails mating. Perhaps readers will be grateful that, feeling queasy after viewing, I desisted! Sorry, those of you enchanted by gastropods……..

Deep Water UK
Deep Water USA

 

Madeline Miller – Circe

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Ancient of Lays, vibrantly and powerfully brought to life

Madeline Miller’s first book, The Song of Achilles, was a standout, stunning read. So it was with a mixture of trepidation and delight that I embarked on this, her second, Circe.

Within a few sentences I settled back with a huge sigh of surrendering relief, as it was clear from the off that the very high bar Miller had set for herself with her working of the story of Achilles was going to be equalled by Circe.

I can’t say this book is better than that one, or that one than this. In truth, she has sung another magical song for Circe.

There won’t be any surprises in the narrative, not for anyone enamoured of Ancient Greek – what do we call it, mythology? history?

When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist. They called me nymph, assuming I would be like my mother and aunts and thousand cousins. Least of the lesser goddesses, out powers were so modest they could scarcely ensure our eternities. We spoke to fish and nurtured flowers, coaxed drops from the clouds or salt from the waves. That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride

Here again is part of the story laid out in Homer

Circe is in sharpest relief as part of Odysseus’ task/journey. She is the daughter of Helios, one of the Titans – older, more archaic and unpredictable gods, who were overthrown by the Olympians. Circe, who transgressed in some way, ends up banished to an island. Her story connects with Odysseus as she is a witch/some kind of punitive goddess, and turned Odysseus’ sailors, and other sailors, into swine. Odysseus ‘tricks’ her, or is wise enough to be alert to how her spell happens (just don’t drink wine offered by witches)

Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away

The Wine of Circe, Edward Burne-Jones

But there is a lot more to Circe’s connections with these ancient lays, Jason, Medea, Theseus, the Minotaur, Ariadne, Prometheus, Daedalus, Icarus and more, all have stories which touch hers

Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two

Miller, who I think is shaping up – if not exceeding, the carrying of Mary Renault’s mantle, breathes vibrant, relevant life into these tales of long ago.

She is immersed, as someone who went the academic route into the study of classical Greece, in her research. But, she is a transformative, magical, inspired writer. Either she knows the spells to get the Muses to descend, or she has inherited Circe’s special magical gift of ‘transformation’ because this gripping, intense, lush story springs off the page, and I have to say this ‘real’ world felt a flatter, colour leached one, compared to the enduring power of those classical times

Beware the Moly – like all skilled witches Circe is a dab hand with plants for good and ill

I really cannot recommend this highly enough. Narrative, character, thought provoking substance and a skill with the craft of writing itself, all are superb.

Let me say what sorcery is not. It is not divine power, which comes with a thought and a blink. It must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that it can fail, as gods do not

I have to say that those Ancient Greeks have exerted a strong pull on me since childhood – mythic, archetypical, speaking to powerful collective unconscious depths. They are so much more than ‘fantasy’ And Miller, as a writer, gets those hairs up on the back of the neck shivers in this reader, echoing what some of those ancient sites in Greece do.

Another powerful woman who should not be messed with – Janelle Monae, Django Jane

Circe, in Miller’s telling, might easily be a Sister. Even though there is ONE bit of skulduggery against a prettier nymph, but, oh she realises her fault

I was delighted to read this as an ARC from Netgalley.

Circe UK
Circe USA

Rose Tremain – Rosie

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Goodbye Rosie, Hello Rose

I am a huge fan of Rose Tremain. She is an author who always writes and observes beautifully, but does not have just one book within her, regurgitated in different ways. She constantly surprises.

So I was interested to read what looked like a remarkably slim autobiography, Rosie : Scenes From A Vanished Life

That ‘vanished life’ is Rosie herself, as she claimed her true identity as Rose

This is beautifully written, but curiously distanced, distancing.

Born into a rather privileged background, at least in terms of status and finance – her stepfather was after all a ‘Sir’ and her real father’s cousin, her childhood was nonetheless curiously lacking in parental attention, encouragement and warm regard. In fact, her mother, referred to as ‘Jane’ by Tremain, and not by any maternal appellation, had lacked love and affection herself as a child, and had also been called by a name she disliked, rechristening herself as Jane.

Rosie’s First Birthday

Children – and the adults they become, sustain damage from absent affection, they don’t have to be actively ill-treated to bear wounds.

I found myself wondering about the kind of distance with which Rose writes about herself. This isn’t a ‘misery memoir’ but it does have a kind of lack of warmth in it. I found this unsettling because she is a writer whose characters are warmly and fully regarded by her. The reader of a Tremain novel is drawn into feeling that they really know her complex and beautifully rounded characters. Yet, the sense here is that Tremain did not really want the reader to know Rosie. Somehow, the child and the young girl sent off to be ‘finished’ in Switzerland, rather than pursue the academic route she wanted are seen through a screen. Which is a curious place to be writing some kind of autobiography from

Rosie, her loving and beloved Nannie Nan, and her sister Jo

This is rather like picking up a collection of faded snapshots, which have intriguing titles, but they are incomplete, part of a larger collection, which probably were mounted in sequence in an album, and told a larger story, but this is missing.

This is probably one which will be most interesting to those who love and know her writing. As she is at pains to point out, she is not an ‘autobiographical’ novelist per se, but certainly small events make their way into the novels and stories, and she references these.

There was one recounted incident where Rose drew me close to Rosie, and I felt great grief for her. Her inspired music teacher at the boarding school she was sent away to, arranged for a concert to be given by her pupils. A prestigious one, at the Royal Festival Hall. Though open to the public, the majority of the most expensive seats would be bought by proud families. Who would then take their children out for a congratulatory tea. Except Rosie’s mother and stepfather did not come. She wrote to her real father (who had abandoned his family for a liaison with another woman) He was a writer, and also a keen pianist himself. Though he did come, he left at the interval, after Rosie had played, and did not come back to take his daughter for tea

In conclusion, I liked this very much indeed, but remain slightly confused as to the purpose of its writing. There is half the sense of a catharsis (perhaps) for the writer – except that the feeling I was left with was an unresolved, and even covert anger and resentment (completely understandable) still within the child inside the woman.

Here is a wonderful excerpt, a moment of epiphany, an ‘aha’ moment, where the idea of writing, as something profound and meaningful, hit the thirteen year old

The perfume of the day, the heat of my body after the tennis game, the sky the colour of coral, the silence surrounding me – all combined to fill me, suddenly, with a profound feeling of wonder, a fleeting sense of the marvellous, which, in its intensity, was almost a visionary experience.

I told myself that if I continued standing still, this moment would last and might even change me in some way that I couldn’t quite foresee. But I stood there so long that the sun almost disappeared and the field became full of shadows. And with the dusk came a feeling of desolation. The desolation was simply a mundane recognition of the fleeting nature of everything, which even teenagers (or perhaps especially teenagers) understand. A moment of happiness as intense as this slips quickly away with the turning of the earth. So I asked myself, there in the hayfield, with the swear of the tennis game drying down my back and making me shiver: was there any way in which the experiences of my life, like this one, could be captured and locked away, not just in capricious, gradually fading memory, but in some more concrete form

Rosie UK
Rosie USA

Michael Blakemore – Arguments with England

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The play’s the thing…………and how!

I was enthralled by the 2013 Stage Blood, Blakemore’s account of the early days of the National Theatre in its new South Bank home, and the last days of the company at the Old Vic, under, first of all, Sir Laurence Olivier as the Artistic Director, and then, Peter Hall’s first few years of tenure. Blakemore had been invited to join as an Associate director by Olivier, whom he much admired, and had interesting things to say about Hall. As in, ‘may you live in interesting (conflicting/disputatious) times’ He had some prior history with Hall, and resigned (as did some others) not liking the direction Hall was taking.

This book, published some 9 years earlier (2004) is amongst other things, a far more obviously autobiographical book than Stage Blood, though of course Blakemore’s experience of those 5 years at the National, is nonetheless an individual’s account, it is still focused on the history of an organisation in which the author was deeply involved

Arguments with England is Michael Blakemore’s sense of himself, and his personal history which has been lived as an Australian who came to this country to follow a path in theatre, drawn here by the experience of seeing that tradition of classical theatre in Australia, as exemplified by tours from ‘the mother country’ with some towering figures at their helm. Of which one was Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, on tour with the Old Vic Theatre Company.

Blakemore, arriving in the UK in 1950, though always desirous of directing, started as an actor, auditioning and being accepted at RADA and then following the life of a jobbing, but steadily more successful middle range actor. This book charts that life, and his long start and stop writing of his novel, Next Season. I was fascinated (despite his later disclaimer that he had amalgamated characters and incidents and no specific individual was portrayed) to so clearly be able to identify characters from that novel, in this autobiographical account

There is quite a lot of information about various affairs Blakemore had, plus personal stuff which really belongs to others. I always feel a little uneasy with these revelations – only because I wonder how those various partners might feel about their histories being revealed. I can only hope permission was given. Reading this book, I found myself full of – I’m not sure if I want to write admiration or compassion for his wife, who seems to be a woman of extraordinary – tolerance, or long-standing broadmindedness. Or, perhaps laid unfairly low by her loving heart. The marriage was/is an ‘open’ one, but as often, it seems this means males wanting freedom to roam, and women being dangled. Blakemore expressed, often in this book that he had had no intention of leaving his marriage, and I also felt compassion for the woman with whom he had a long standing affair.

Be that as it is, I hurry along to praise the fascinating writing about the process of acting itself, the details of performances Blakemore saw, with actors he admired hugely, accounts of his own discoveries, anguishes and successes with rehearsals and performance and also the wonderful view of England and English society and culture which is revealed by an outsider’s eye. It always fascinates me, how someone from another culture views ours (and how we view theirs)

If the industrial wasteland I was passing through on my way to Huddersfield spoke of the selective blindness of those fortunate enough to live elsewhere, it also said something about the perverse social obedience of the thousands dumped in the middle of it. Similarly the fondness for secrecy among those who governed….could only be indulged by a constituency happy not to know. I could see that the class system, the acceptance of which was so incomprehensible to an outsider, was shored up most crucially by its victims, a population obsessed with deference…..By the mid-sixties England would be a country in which I felt lucky to have found refuge. By the mid-eighties, as the old heartlessness found new ways to assert itself, I would be less sure

Blakemore had (and has) absolute passion and intelligence for theatre, and whether he is writing about the experience of the audience, exploring acting itself, or directing, or writing for theatre, and the collaborations between director, writer, actors, designers and the technical side of bringing vision to reality, this is an utterly fascinating account.

Up till now I had relied as an actor on my small store of sophistication and assurance, and had got nowhere. Only now, when I was making use of the most vulnerable and naked aspects of myself had I come up with something of real interest….I began to see that notwithstanding its occasional triumphs, its conspicuously public success, there was at the heart of an actor’s life an aspect of public confession, something perplexed and even grieving

It is also, at times, laugh out loud funny. Blakemore is a sharp and funny writer, never more so than when pricking his own balloon
Arguments with England UK
Arguments with England USA

Michael Blakemore – Stage Blood

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Idealism, intelligence and inspiration – and much skulduggery : The National Theatre 1971-1976

Actor and theatre director Michael Blakemore is also a wonderful writer on matters theatrical. This is the case whether this be in his one novel, Next Season, published in 1969, or, as here, his factual account of the early beginnings of the National Theatre, published a mere 5 years ago

I came across Next Season in the late 80s, republished by Faber with a very fine introduction by Simon Callow, who recounted it being passed round in plain covers, almost like a banned book, backstage and front of house at the National Theatre, still based at the Old Vic. The reason for its seditious reputation was because it was rumoured that it was a possibly thinly disguised account of some regrettable theatrical tendencies which Blakemore was experiencing and observing at the time of writing.(the book was published in the late 60s), Blakemore, by then a director at the Glasgow Citizens had worked as an actor at the RSC – which is where he initially encountered both Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall, both of whom inevitably figure heavily in Stage Blood. Rumour said that the charismatic, wonderful star actor Ivan Spears was imagined with Olivier in mind, or that at least the imagination, intelligence and power of Spears’ work came from Blakemore’s observation and knowledge of Olivier, whom he clearly much admired. Less welcome would have been the rumour that Tom Chester, the bureaucratic speaking power hungry director, a coming new breed to usurp the actor’s centre stage position, was modelled on Hall, a man of a certain devious reputation for stealing limelight and invention from others

National Theatre South Bank in construction, 1971

In 1971 Blakemore was appointed by Olivier as an Associate Director at the Old Vic based National, then preparing for its new South Bank Home. Although Olivier was at times difficult, devious and autocratic, Blakemore makes clear that his guiding star was the glory of theatre itself, and the building of a company of excellence, a community of artists, and that being part of this was the idea of the arts as a necessary service to society. By 1973 Olivier, in many ways a representation of the ‘Actor Manager’ was replaced as Artistic Director by Peter Hall, a man possibly for far greedier times. Under Hall, the idea of that community of artists began to break down, Hall was interested in star power, and, to be fair, the prospect of far higher remuneration in TV and films was making it harder to keep acting companies together. More equal contracts were being replaced, and the gap between the wages of the leading actors and the spear carriers was dramatically and ostentatiously rising.

Sir Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall

Hall himself of course published his own account of his time at the National, in the Peter Hall Diaries. Blakemore here gives his very different account – he resigned from the National in 1976, – and indeed several other Associates were later – or earlier to strongly criticise Hall.

Of course, theatre lovers and those with some background or history here will be particularly gripped by this wonderfully warm, intelligent account, but it also provides fascinating insights into the kind of high, dramatic boardroom backstabbing events which almost have a Greek Tragedy – and Comedy feel, about them. Perhaps it is the lens of theatre itself which reveals this – so as Blakemore uncovers the workings of the rehearsal room, in his accounts of some of the productions he directed whilst at the National, what might be boring accounts of jockeyings for power and control seem to achieve a more mythic, archetypal painting

I recently re-read Next Season, so I knew that Blakemore would be fascinating in this one – and am now waiting to read Arguments with England, his account of his beginnings in the English theatre. He arrived from his native Australia in 1950, as a student at RADA

I had a clear and very simple view of what I thought theatre was for. It was to bring to the stage productions of such accomplishment and concentrated intent that anyone who saw them would remember them for the rest of their lives. It was their impact rather than the categories to which they happened to belong that mattered.

They could be anything – tragedies or comedies, musicals or one-man shows. Not surprisingly such occasions are a rarity. But they do happen and are perhaps the one good reason why people who should know better persist on in such a clumsy, compromised and often disappointing medium, It’s impossible to legislate for this kind of excellence; all you can do is get the work done as best you can, keep your fingers crossed and trust that once in a while in the life of an institution or an individual, against the odds, it happens. This hardly constitutes a policy and is certainly not a programme, nor is it much use in the daily and arduous demands of running a theatre, but as a thought on hold at the back of one’s mind, a sleeping aspiration, it can warn against wrong turnings and highlight misjudgements

Stage Blood UK
Stage Blood USA

Yuko Tsushima – Territory of Light

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Delicate, bleak and disturbing

Though it could be said this is a ‘slight’ book, it is not without its own uncomfortable power. I found myself thinking of The Bell Jar, at times, transported to a different culture (Japan) where not so much is stated or shown, and the narrator’s emotional and existential fractures have a kind of varnished, disguised quality to them, even from within her own expression

Set in Tokyo in the 70s the slim book charts a year in the life of a woman who has rented a fourth floor apartment, the ‘territory of light’ in a mainly abandoned commercial property

The unnamed narrator is a young woman with a toddler, separated from her wastrel husband. The only name we have for her is her last name, her married name, coincidentally the same surname as the building’s landlord. It is totally fitting that we do not know her name – she is a demographic – young woman, separated, single mother, struggling to keep finances together, juggling the requirements of work and childcare. She is isolated and the separation from her unsuitable partner (her mother advised against the marriage) is something shameful. She is outside society.

This is a deeply melancholic book, with a strange, dissociative, dream like quality. The rhythms of the writing are somehow both spare, slow and clear. Reading, in my head I could hear the evocative, misty soundscape evoked by the shakuhachi flute, and see in my mind’s eye some typical Japanese calligraphy and artwork featuring a mountain and a crane – a kind of still, sad beauty constructed over sadness.

I wanted to read and surrender to the ‘nothing happens, everything happens’ sensibility of this – little high drama, much recounting of everyday, but in a way which set down roots into depths, shoots into light – but it took me far longer to read than its short length should have taken. And this was because the atmosphere was pervasive, misty, and the spare writing invited the reader to stop, reflect, let the images build

To the west, at the far end of the long, thin apartment, a big window gave onto the main road; here the late sun and the street noise poured in without mercy. Directly below, one could see the black heads of pedestrians who streamed along the pavement towards the station in the morning and back again in the evening. On the footpath opposite, in front of a florist’s, people stood still at a bus stop. Every time a bus or lorry passed by the whole fourth floor shook and the crockery rattles on the shelves. The building where I’d set up house with my daughter was on a three-way intersection – four-way counting the lane to the south. Nevertheless, several times a day, a certain combination of red lights and traffic flow would produce about ten seconds silence. I always noticed it a split second before the signals changed and the waiting cars all revved impatiently at once

Geraldine Harcourt is the translator of this strange, subtly unsettling novella, originally published in a Japanese monthly literary magazine, in the late 70s. I have never read any of Yuko Tsushima’s work before, or, indeed heard of her. Something I intend to rectify – there are a couple of other titles, either pending publication or already published by Penguin Modern Classics. I have fallen under this writer’s spell

I was lucky enough to receive this as an ARC via NetGalley. Amusingly, though the published Kindle seems properly formatted, the ARC had some curious errors – any words containing any of the following letter combinations, had those letters missing, which added to the strange, elusive, not quite graspable spell of the piece – ff, fl, fi – so office floor became o ice oor. At times it was like trying to piece together a fine cracked piece of porcelain!

Territory of Light UK
Territory of Light USA

Dennis Glover – The Last Man In Europe

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As clearly, accessibly and authentically written as the subject himself would have insisted on

The title of Dennis Glover’s faction about George Orwell and his writing, was a possible work-in-progress title for Orwell’s last novel, the extraordinarily reverberating Nineteen Eighty Four

Australian author Glover has very clearly penned an absolute labour of love here, which though drawing strongly from Orwell’s writing and from various biographical and historical writings of his times, is crafted as a novel, and in language which tries for the clarity and immediacy of Orwell’s own writing.

Eric Blair the man was someone of great complexity. I confess he was very much a hero of my youth, and not only the novels, but the much cherished 4 volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, published by Penguin still maintain their battered, thumbed presence on my bookshelves

Glover’s book starts really with the writing of Keep The Aspidistra Flying, published in 1936. Central character Gordon Comstock, a shabby, high minded unsuccessful writer, castigates and vilifies the bourgeoisie, and exists on the edges of genteel penury, whilst working in a bookshop and seeking to find a way to bed his girl, Rosemary, when neither of them have the money to find privacy to do so, in a world of sharp eyed landladies living on the premises.

He started walking. Bleakness. Why did he have to be good at bleakness? Obviously, to represent failure, bleakness was inevitable. But how many writers had become successful by depressing everyone? Such writers were usually famous after they were dead….You didn’t buy books in order to feel gloomy, did you? For 10/6 you wanted a little happiness and pleasure…..Bleakness, it occurred to him, meant he would never be able to afford to marry. He picked up a piece of brick and threw it over the embankment at the water, but it landed in the mud

Orwell himself drew heavily on his own experiences with this one, a reflection of the challenges between being a high minded writer and a successful one. Not to say the challenges of getting published in the first place.

Orwell moved with ease – well, the results moved with ease, however hard the writing itself may have been in the crafting – between fiction, whether mined from his own experiences or from the lives of the times, and from his investigations into the reality of what life was like, particularly for those on the margins of society, or at least, deprived from present power which might shape society. His writing on the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, which is also covered here, on the life of the poor, The Road to Wigan pier and Down and Out in Paris and London are also explored.

Glover beautifully delineates Blair the man, Orwell the writer and avoids slipping into hagiography.

I found myself moved and excited by Glover’s fictional imaginings, – how particular ideas, phrases, events might have made their way into his two most bleak and warning fictions – Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – for example, the horrific rat episode in his last book, juxtaposed with reality on Jura, in a damp, decaying, isolated abandoned farmhouse, where he had retreated to in order to write and edit his last novel. At this time, Orwell was in severely failing health, with tuberculosis. His specialist had forbidden writing, through the exertion any activity was placing on his lungs, and he had also had several excruciating sounding procedures carried out to try and manage the condition, before then being treated with a new medicine, Streptomycin, which was also not without horrific side effects at the dosage required.

He realised with a shudder that the future wasn’t something to look forward to, but something to be frightened of. Yes, it was coming alright

I found this section of Glover’s book almost unbearable and heartbreaking, even though they were leavened by the satisfaction found in the crafting of the writing itself, by the dying man

For the first time, he was no longer certain he would live to see the world rebuilt. And even if it was rebuilt, maybe it would all happen again, people’s memories being so short

I recommend this most warmly to Orwell’s admirer’s – but also, to those for whom the subject himself may not be so well known. It stands on its merits as a very well crafted, thought provoking novel

This was a wonderful choice by my on-line bookclub so well done to the pickers of the titles and to those of us who voted for this one (including me!)

The Last Man In Europe UK
The Last Man In Europe USA

Alma Katsu – The Hunger

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Literary Western-Horror splice

There is historical background to Alma Katsu’s novel, The Hunger, which is based on ‘The Donner Party’ – or, more properly, ‘The Donner-Reed Party’,  a large group of pioneers, led by, at different times George Donner and James F. Reed, who set out, in May 1846, from Springfield Illinois, to travel to California. Initially there were 500 wagons, many families taking several wagons, filled with household possessions as well as supplies and cattle for food,  as they were effectively moving home to a new State. The pioneers were mostly families, but with some single men, and most of the pioneers had a range of reasons for making this challenging journey. Some, inevitably were escaping past mistakes, crimes and misdemeanours, some looking for the prospect of creating a better life for their young families.

The journey was one which had been successfully done before, by others, and initially the Donner Party were doing fine.. A fatal mistake was made, however, to pursue a shortcut, the Hastings Cutoff, from Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Unfortunately Lansford Hastings, the promoter of this supposed short cut, had been – economical – with its suitability.

Great Salt Lake Desert Crossing

The party encountered severe problems with weather and terrain, firstly when the Hastings Cutoff proved not to be a short cut, landing the group in a parching desert crossing of the Great Salt Lake Desert, meaning that they joined the Oregon trail, making a push over the Sierra Nevada mountains, late in the season at the end of October, becoming trapped by heavy snowfall blocking the pass. Stuck  in the high mountains, by the time rescue came less than half of the group of just under 90 who had set out on that final push were still alive. Others had not chosen to follow the route, or had left the wagon train earlier, There were also several rescue attempts which had resulted in some of the rescuers perishing. Food supplies ran out, and the survivors, or some of them, had resorted to cannibalism, eating the bodies of their dead companions

Sierra Nevada Mountains

Katsu, who writes well, really well, has taken the names of the real pioneers, but has created her own story around this, with an imaginative, horror explanation of what happened. Although for me the horror aspects are the least interesting parts of the book, having recently read Algernon Blackwood’s truly chilling short story The Wendigo, based on the beliefs of certain Native American tribes, I was more willing to be rattled by the fears of ‘this is a bad place’ energy being expressed by some in Katsu’s story who are sensitive to the energy of place.

Stumps of trees cut at the Alder Creek site by members of the Donner Party, photograph taken in 1866. The height of the stumps indicates the depth of snow. Wiki Commons

I always have certain problems with inventing stories (particularly bad ones) for real characters who once lived, and must confess to a certain unease here too, particularly when dodgy pasts and shady motivations and characterisations of one kind or another, are assigned to real people, though it certainly seems that some of those who are most harshly dealt with in her book were, indeed, those with stains laid against them by survivors

Reading the long Wiki entry, and a couple of other sources, on what is a gripping tale, with well drawn characters – particularly some of the women, really given flesh, integrity and stories – she has researched well, and the imaginative twist she inserts is one which even could have a scientific basis, given knowledge of Kuru and other transmissible spongiform encephalopathy diseases, associated not just with cannibalism, but where one species eats another which is not its ‘normal’ diet – BSE, Creutzfeld Jacob, etc a better known example of this.

I recommend this strongly. It is a very well told, well paced tale, with strong characterisation, moving and horrific. Just don’t read it (or part of it) late at night or close to meal times.

I received this  as a review copy via  Amazon Vine UK

The Hunger Amazon UK
The Hunger Amazon USA

Irvin D. Yalom – The Gift of Therapy

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Absorbing reflections reaching more widely than merely the ‘new generation of therapists and their patients’

I admire the wisdom and compassion expressed in the writing and the thinking behind the writing of existential humanistic psychotherapist Irvin Yalom

Now in his late 80s, Yalom inspires not just those who practice psychotherapy, counselling, psychoanalysis or psychiatry. He is a philosophical thinker, rather than one who focuses on human ‘lesions’ or pathologies. Or, as he simply, profoundly says :

A diagnosis limits vision; it diminishes ability to relate to the other as a person. Once we make a diagnosis, we tend to selectively inattend to aspects of the patient that do not fit into that particular diagnosis

He has written books which tell the stories (anonymised, given narrative structure, and with permission) or particular encounters with patients over his decades of practice. These do not read like dry, clinical, case histories. Yalom inhabits the understanding that what is happening in the psychotherapeutic encounter is what happens in any human encounter – relationship. The therapist, though they must strive to understand their own subjective agenda within the client/practitioner encounter, can never be a robotic observer, but always brings themselves into the field of encounter with the client, as much as the client brings themselves into that field. And the connection itself will shape outcomes.

Yalom also, as to some extent here, writes books which are perhaps a little less geared towards the lay-person, but which might serve as useful guide or instruction to anyone engaged in holding any kind of therapeutic space, whether one to one, or with groups

He also writes a third kind of book, one where he turns deep thinking about philosophy and the questions which surely we all return to, across our lives, the attempt to understand primal ‘whys’ into the form of dramatic narrative. For Yalom is as much a writer, an imaginative, dramatic, shaping one, as he is someone working within the pursuit of emotional, integral healing and wholeness for individuals seeking this in the psychotherapy field.

Something I absolutely appreciate with Yalom is his acknowledgement and laying bare of his own errors, challenges and difficulties in his work. Perhaps this is one reason is so genuinely admired, so genuinely an inspirer – he shows his failures, reveals how the journey of practice goes wrong.

I like the central idea, expressed in many different ways in his books, of holding fast to the idea of the wholeness within the individual, however broken they might appear :

As a young psychotherapy student the most useful book I read was Karen Horney’s Neurosis and Human Growth. And the single most useful concept in that book was the notion that the human being has an inbuilt propensity towards self-realization. If obstacles are removed, Horney believed, the individual will develop into a mature, fully realized adult, just as an acorn will develop into an oak tree

Yalom is always revealing far more than the ostensible subject matter of his books, and, is always writing about meaning with wider reach

I underlined page after page, as being useful to return to, whether thinking about my own professional requirements, or, those deeper thoughts about the ‘whys’

Here is an example, ostensibly Yalom is cautioning against the fashion for shorter trainings, shorter interventions, and the following of rigid single patterns of thought in psychiatric evaluations and treatments, but more is opened out

In these days of relentless attack on the field of psychotherapy, the analytic institutes may become the last bastion, the repository of collected psychotherapy wisdom, in much the same way the church for centuries was the repository of philosophical wisdom and the only realm where serious existential questions – life purpose, values, ethics, responsibility, freedom, death, community, connectedness – were discussed. There are similarities between psychoanalytic institutes and religious institutions of the past, and it is important that we do not repeat the tendencies of some religious institutions to suppress other forums of thoughtful discourse and to legislate what thinkers are allowed to think

The Gift of Therapy UK
The Gift of Therapy USA