A break from the Booker

Had a long train journey and baulked at the idea of carrying a kilo+ book in my handbag, so left Paul Auster behind.  I went into WH Smith at the station and laid my hand on the nearest paperback that looked halfway interesting.

stefThis turned out to be Stef Penney‘s third novel, Under a Pole Star. It was an absolute find! It is quite a wonder that this writer has actually never been to any of the places that she writes so evocatively about, she is a self-confessed “armchair traveller”, so that all her background writing on locale, weather, snow conditions and such like come from research rather than experience.

This novel covers early exploration and scientific study in and around the Arctic Circle. The central character in Under a Pole Star is once again a strong and formidable woman, she is the daughter of an English whaler, a widower who perforce took his young daughter, Flora, with him on his two year forays into the Northern waters after whales. Here she mixed with men and with Inuits in a frozen waste and loved it. At some point, Captain Mackie realises that she can no longer accompany him, leaving her with a yearning ambition to return.

The story starts with an elderly woman waiting, weather-bound, in Gander airport to be flown to the North Pole for a PR stunt that she does not fully understand. Along with the group is a young journalist called Randall Crane. He has an ulterior motive which is revealed later, but his questions cause her memory to break open…

This is both a love story and a wonderful tale of explorers and scientists from America and Britain competing to study and, indeed, exploit the frozen North. It is a tale of delight and betrayal, danger and survival, professional shenanigans and competition and a deep love of the frozen Arctic.

The descriptive passages bring to mind the writings of Cherry Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World, which the author says she has included in her research, but it is not the worst for that. The difficulties that these early explorers endured are the stuff of legends, and even if this book is entirely fictional it brings these horrors and demands very much to life.

I was as gripped by this book as much as by The Tenderness of Wolves which I also loved. [What is it with Wolves? April 10, 2017]

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 10

And so on to weightier matters, literally. Paul Auster‘s door-stopping novel weighs in at 1200 grams and 886 pages, a mere bagatelle when compared with David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest which is on my TBR for post Booker reading.

42314321 is the title of this massive book and is the story of Archie Ferguson, grandson of newly arrived Russian immigrant Ichabod Ferguson. Family legend having it that Isaac Reznikoff was told  that he would get on better with a more American sounding name, and that Rockefeller was a good name to choose, but on being asked his name, he said in his own tongue Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten).

I have gone into quite a lot of detail to demonstrate here the complexity of the characters and their relationships, so if this seems to be a spoiler to you, rather than an exposition, stop reading where the text colour changes. This novel is a work of philosophy, an exploration of nurture versus nature, of the ‘what ifs’ of life. Ferguson is a thoughtful, observant and rather lonely little boy, in the section where he learns to read he ponders on the accident that has caused his immobility, unwinding the actions and causes and giving some thought to the vagaries of cause and effect, at this point he is only six…

This is an unashamedly American novel, rooted in place and time, rooted in fact, very much, in Paul Auster’s own place and time. Various key world events lock us into when this is all taking place: the ending of the war in Europe, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the Korean War and other similar. Baseball features, teams that in Europe may have little meaning, take on importance, at some level and probably mirror actual games and players, I have no idea.

Like Michael Chabon and Howard Jacobson it is also decidedly Jewish, though not in an synagogue attending way, but in family gatherings, food and culture. Auster uses the novel form to address existential issues and questions of identity, space, language, and literature, creating his own distinctively postmodern (and critique of postmodernist) form in the process. Identity, Ferguson’s, being the key ingredient here.

It may take a while to read, but it is worth the effort. As with several other longlisted titles it is stylistically unusual, but do not let that put you off. Like going to France with a smattering of French in your memory, you get used to hearing it, and your ear becomes attuned – in this case you will find your “ear” and eye quickly pick up the familiar patterns.

There are constants in this book. Archie’s relationships with his parents, their parents and siblings remain the same, as does the date of his birth. On his father’s (Stanley Ferguson) side he has two uncles Lew (Louis) and Arnold (Aaron), whose wives are respectively Millie and Joan. Lew and Millie have two children, Andrew and Alice; Arnold and Joan have three, Jack, Francie and Ruth. His mother, Rose Adler has one sister Mildred, her parents Benjy and Emma live in New York. Ike and Fanny live in New Jersey and then there are inconstants!

But at this point is becomes complicated. In 1.1 Stanley, the youngest Ferguson is ambitious and driven, he starts with a leather goods store which eventually expands into the 3 Brothers Home Store, and sells everything from furniture to white goods. It would do better if the two elder brothers, layabouts both, were not constantly helping themselves to takings from the till; Lew is a gambler and has borrowed money off Stanley to cover mounting debts, however his gambling has become more serious, he then suddenly has a huge win, but far from repaying his brother, he buys mink for Millie and a Cadillac for himself and then throws a big champagne party, he eventually has a fatal crash in the Cadillac; the store is doing well until there is a huge warehouse burglary, which it eventually turns out is an inside job, and since he does not want to bring down his brother Arnold, Stanley endures the loss in silence, sending his brothers away; by 1.2 Stanley’s store has burnt to ashes, Ferguson is six and is learning to read, having broken his leg falling from tree; 1.3 fills in some of the more lurid details of the store fire. Archie’s cousin Andrew is killed in the Korean War, Lew goes off the rails and his debts become insurmountable, with his book-maker he conceives of an insurance scam that includes burning down the store, with fatal results and Lew ends up in prison; 1.4 finds Stanley with three prosperous stores, with two more due to be opened, he sees very little of his son Archie [who, by the way is known as Ferguson throughout]. Rose, his mother, is a professional studio photographer in all these sections, but in various guises. In 1.4 she spends quite a lot of time looking for a suitable studio/shop space which she eventually finds. 

The absolute inconstant is Ferguson’s aunt Mildred, in each section she is sometimes unmarried and does meet and marry, or remains a spinster. But each time she does marry it is to somebody completely different. And in different ways this affects Ferguson, especially the last husband, Donald Lomax a divorced man with a son, Noah.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 9

I think that while authors like Mike McCormack are still writing it is safe to say that the novel is not dead. That said, Solar Bones, his latest title is quite some read.

Solar BonesFirst of all, the book has no dust jacket, and seen in a pile from the angle of the cut page, it could be mistaken for a prayer book, as the pages are gilded. Then on opening the book, the reader becomes quickly aware that there are no full-stops, not just on page one but throughout the whole book even to the end.

So with no stops and no chapters and virtually no breaks in the prose, except for spacings, what exactly is this? A train of thought or stream-of-consciousness? Is it spooling backwards even though we are reading it forwards?page

The big question though is what is the relationship between the situation we find on page one to the events we experience in the last seven and a half pages. Is there a caesura somewhere that brings us into the present, and if so where?

These questions are important, but not killing. This is an extraordinarily rich, complex and wide reaching river of words describing the marriage and family life of one, Marcus Conway, civil engineer and father to Agnes and Darragh, husband to Mairead; the thoughts and ramblings of this one man, Marcus from the ringing of the Angelus bell at midday on 2nd November, to the pips signalling the one o’clock news on 21st March. That is to say, the thoughts range over this man’s childhood, various national events and some personal ones that eventually converge in the sickness of Mairead who is a victim of a Clostridium poisoning which takes down over six hundred inhabitants, and probably more, in an un-named Irish city, when the water supply is contaminated with human waste.

Meanwhile, we come back again and again to this same kitchen table with Marcus sitting at it, thinking and feeling a slow, unidentified dread.

The novel is full of humour, Darragh is quite the joker although we only meet him on Skype as he is currently the other side of the world; Marcus himself is not without a sense of the absurd, but also a sense of his own worth, which comes out in one train of thought about some work he is meant to be signing off, and cannot because the work is sub-standard: his civil duty and a quiet life for the politicos involved being at odds with one another.

I have never come across a novel quite like this one. It is not, even by a stretch of imagination comparable to Ulysses, Leopold Bloom’s experiences cover a single day and 260,000 words but it is clever and challenging in exactly the same way, and leaves you thinking about it for hours after.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 8

A writer’s first book is always something to celebrate, an achievement for them and an adventure for us, especially when the book is a novel. Emily Fridlund is one of only two first book writers in this longlist, there are other first novel writers, but that is slightly different.

Wolves History of Wolves is set among the lakes of North Minnesota.  On the shores of Still Lake, one a small family live in a rustic cabin; once part of a larger commune, they are the remnants. Madeleine can remember a time when there were more of them, and the book centres around her childhood, more or less between the age of twelve to fifteen.

At some point during that time, another small family move into a modern summer cabin across the lake from where she lives. They first appear in the summer, but then one autumn they arrive again and she sees them unpacking. She can see through their windows exactly what they are doing, a father, mother and young child.

Drifting in loneliness between school and a dismal job in a local diner, Madeleine (Lindy) eventually fetches up babysitting for Patra and looking after the little boy, Paul, who is about four years old. Time passes and she earns sufficient money for the babysitting to give up the diner job. Leo, Paul’s father is away a great deal, and Lindy senses the unease that this causes Petra, but cannot quite focus on its source. Leo is a scientist, and it turns out a Christian Scientist, and when he is there seems to Lindy to be austere, but capable and generally kind, though he does grill her with penetrating questions about her understanding of life.

This novel is written in lucent, patient prose. Lindy observes and considers and we see the world almost entirely through her eyes and her experience. There is a terrible vacuity in her existence, limited as her life is. She is regarded as a freak at school and makes almost no friends, and has no contact with anyone her own age during the long holidays.

The days gaped open after that. No school, no job, daylight going on and on like it would never quit. I cleaned two perfect northern pike and did the north-forty wood the first day, then I dithered about in the boat for a few more, catching crappie near the beaver dam. I filled the net without trying, sorted all the tackle one morning, took a comb to the dogs and teased out the mats left over from their winter coats. One afternoon I walked the five miles into town and bought toothpaste and toilet paper from the drugstore.

Somehow, it is not surprising that this child ends up wrapping herself tighter and tighter around the novelty of a different family. It is not exactly that she is neglected, her father is there, caring and comfortable and her mother is there, but more spikey and dismissive, she is fed and housed and then left to her own devices…

This is a smashingly evocative novel, you feel the extreme cold, hear the damp thump of snow falling from the roof and branches, you smell the pine trees in the heat and hear the lonely call of the loons that swim and dive and you live inside the head of the narrator. It is compelling and insightful and I can hardly wait to see what Ms Fridlund will write next.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 7

Arundhati Roy’s new novel, only her second since winning the Man Booker Prize in 1997, also starts in a graveyard. A short passage, written entirely in italics, describes the flying foxes leaving the Banyan tree at sundown; as the bats leave, the crows return to roost. The passage, though, is a lament for the loss of the sparrows, which have gone missing and the absence of the white-backed vultures which have been completely wiped out through human agency. Farmers fed their cattle Diclofenac, an aspirin to relax them and thereby increased their milk production, but which proved poisonously fatal to the vultures, whose natural appetite fed on the carcases left for them to clear up.

RoyThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness meanders through and around the lives of two women and three men, but with a cast of thousands whose lives touched theirs briefly, or from a great distance affected what they did in this convoluted, tragic history.

Set in India, but also passing through Kashmir and Pakistan, and spanning many years, its trajectory is the arc of history that includes Partition, the Bhopal chemical disaster, the Coco Cola scandal (about which the book says practically nothing but which gets a passing mention) and the various Kashmiri uprisings and suppressions to name but a few of the points of painful memory that mark the twentieth century in the Indian sub-continent.

Anjum leaves her home with nothing much more than a few household items and some carpets and rugs and set herself up in the graveyard where her family is buried. Like a tree she clings to the earth, suffering insults and casual cruelty, as a tree would – silently. Then an ancient imam becomes a regular visitor, and this calms things down and she is left in peace, thus begins the tale of the hijra.  Born Aftab, the fourth baby in a line of girls, he was the longed-for son of Jahanara Begum. It was only after the midwife left and she was exploring the new life she had produced that she saw to her sorrow that the boy also had girl-parts.

Terrified and saddened Jahanara Begum takes the baby to the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed asking that he teach her to love the baby, and it works.

For several years she was able to conceal this terrible fact from her husband, but eventually the truth came out and Aftab/Anjum left his birthplace and went to live in Khwabgah with other hijra. Eventually leaving them to live in the graveyard where she accommodates herself and slowly many other characters join her and their personal histories make up the other parts of this magnificently sprawling book.

The other principal woman in the tale arrives much later, but in many ways the story is as much about her as it is about Anjum. S. Tilottama, or Tilo is a petite and beautiful woman of dark skin, shunned therefore by many of her kind and rejected by her father. Her story really begins at university where she meets the three men who are part of her story, Musa, Naga and Biplab DasGupta. Each of these men love her and she loves one of them and their lives are intertwined with the history of India and Kashmir in the same way as ivy is intertwined with a tree.

Other characters, some appear once and others many times, circle around these two women and become part of the story. But the story is really that of India, because the political and racial upheavals of the twentieth century are the driving forces that throw these characters together, drag them apart, divide them and make them stronger. So that they survive to love, to meet and to share and in the end to understand.

At one point, Tilo writes to Musa saying that on her tombstone she wants written:

“How to tell a shattered story?

By slowly becoming everybody.

No

By slowly becoming everything.”

The history of India and Kashmir and Pakistan is soaked in blood, and so is this book, saturated in it, rivers of blood flow in the streets and sink into the fields but lives go on, love goes on, courage goes on and babies are born. In the interstices of history, people can and do find happiness.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 6

Zadie Smith, you love her or you don’t. This is what I have found among readers that I talk to. Sadly, I am among those who don’t really care for her books and I feel it is only fair to come right out with this straightaway.

Swing TimeSpring Time is a novel about two girls, the narrator and Tracey. The two girls meet with their mothers in a cemetery, of all places. Their lives are inextricably linked from there on. Tracey and the narrator go to a dance class with Miss Isabel, piano played by Mr Booth. Tracey is a natural, the narrator has flat feet and only a limited sense of rhythm. The competition begins right there.

Tracey lives with her enormous mother and no obvious other parent; the narrator lives with both her parents, white father who is unambitious, conscientious and caring (apparently) and her mother is a Jamaican, resolute, selfish, ambitious and driven.

The area is North London, more or less. Don’t use this novel as an A-Z!

The lives of the two girls, all narrated in the first person, go from that first meeting through teenage and into adulthood, the predictable paths of these two and their parents looks set to play out according to script, but then this is a novel and it is by Zadie Smith.

I do think this is likely to be on the shortlist. It is clever, surprising and wilful. Will I be ecstatic if it wins? No. But I do admire Zadie Smith for mining a rich source of material from her locality and her people (not necessarily those related to her, as per Sebastian Barry, but those close by). I had a friend who was the priest at St Mary’s Willesden, and these people were in his congregation, everyone one of them.

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Chinese take-away

I read recently, two extraordinary books about China. One by the Chinese equivalent of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, unpublishable in his own country, Yan Lianke. Based in Beijing, many of his most controversial writings are banned in China. Four Books is among the banned novels. The other book is by the writer and journalist, Rob Schmitz, who has lived and worked in China for many years and is now based in Shanghai, his book is called Street of Eternal Happiness.

Four Books [for which I have no image because I left it on Orkney for others to read] is a strangely constructed novel, purporting to be sections from writings of various hands, collected and collated into a single bundle of papers. Set at the heart of the Cultural Revolution, several different people – one or two of whom are the authors possibly – are in the distant countryside “farming” and “smelting”. This disparate group are led by ‘The Child’, an androgynous youth who appears to be in charge and to whom all the others kowtow. The others include ‘The Scholar’, ‘The Intellectual’ and other similarly labelled characters, all of whom have been deemed to need re-education. The somewhat barren area they are congregated in is called the Re-Ed District and seems to have numerous separate and competing sections.

The competition element is crucial. The leaders, The Child and his/her ilk go to the next up in the hierarchy and report progress in their “village”. How many bushels of rice they can grow in such and such an area of ground, or how much iron they can smelt…the results are obvious. By exaggerating their yield they are forced to give more and more of their produce to those higher up in towns and cities; those actually producing the goods eventually starve.

Escape is virtually impossible, and hideously punished if caught. Information from outside the immediate compound is scarce and unreliable. Informing on your colleagues, however, is plentiful and a reliable source of “rewards”, generally extra food rations and thereby diminished in reliability.

The discovery of iron rich soil in the bank of the river led to mass smelting, and all metals were demanded to be smelted thus, leaving the compound short of tools and vessels for cooking and eating, and again competition meant a huge over-estimate of supply. Whole areas were de-forested to supply the fuel for the smelting, leaving nothing for shelter, building or fuel for cooking.

With the wisdom of hindsight, the results were entirely predictable. Intellectuals, writers, teachers, accountants and the like were not, and never would be, good farmers. The boastful claims for dubious rewards made by the “leaders” to leaders above them and on up and up the chain, meant that more and more got syphoned to the cities and factories and less and less was available to those in the countryside and a mass starvation followed, partly through a lack of foodstuffs and partly the wherewithal to cook it. They were reduced to eating grass and roots, and then…broke the final taboo.

Read, in translation, this was a very moving and articulate account of the whole process, written as from those undergoing the rigours.

ChinaThe other book, Street of Eternal Happiness, is not entirely different. Rob Schmitz lives in a fairly modern high-rise that looks down on the street and at the back looks over a strangely under-developed area surrounded by a high wall.

As journalist, and a man with an appetite for discovery, Rob begins to talk to (and interview) the local inhabitants of the street. The flower seller who has left the countryside, brought up two sons and now has the problem of their education to deal with; the sandwich bar owner, who makes money producing accordions and whose bar is a side-line; the family who live behind the wall in one dilapidated house surrounded by desolation and a bundle of letters that lead him back in time to a situation similar to the ones described in Four Books.

Many of these city dwellers are not more than one generation away from the scars and wounds of the Cultural Revolution.

This is a dedicated, fascinating, funny and sometimes appalling story of the lives lived in a single street in one of the most diverse and interesting cities. The city’s own history, going right back to the arrival of Europeans, is marked out in the city plan and the waves of fortune and misfortune still appear in the very fabric of the buildings and in the tales of the people Rob speaks to about where they have come from. He clearly has an natural and rare aptitude for drawing out people’s innermost thoughts and feelings, aspirations and desperations.

For anyone visiting, this is a must read; for anyone with no intention of visiting, this is a must read because it is a window on China, a small window with wide implications for the world.

Is the Great Leap Forward, so violently promoted by Chairman Mao, going to prove more of a long jump which is just about to land?

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