As the holiday season comes to an end, a short piece by the incomparable Seamus Heaney. (one of our first posts – Nov 2013 – is 5 wide-ranging essays on his work)
We had a good turnout for our discussion of this collection of short stories from the Irish writer, Colm Tóibín, probably best known for his novel, Nora Webster and also Brooklyn, which was made into a film last year and nominated for three Academy Awards.
The Empty Family was published as a collection in 2010. Some of the stories had been previously published in journals and papers. Like many of Tóibín’s works the nine stories are concerned with themes of ‘exile and return, death and loss, irreconcilable love affairs and conflicting loyalties, the differences between the families we are born into and those we choose for ourselves, or would if we could’ (Guardian).
Tóibín’s lyrical writing appealed to us, and his ability to get so deeply into the heart of his characters. We felt that he’s particularly good at understanding women and the inner conflicts they suffer. The title story, The Empty Family, is a rather torturous examination of relationships. We discussed how Tóibín conveys the poignancy of emigration – you come back and don’t fit in and find everyone else had just got on with their lives.
We found the story, The Colour of Shadows, particularly poignant, ‘a lovely story’, about Paul being called back to Enniscorthy from Dublin when his aunt Josie is taken to hospital. After visiting her, back at her house he’s amazed by how different it seems without her presence: ‘how small everything was, not only the rooms themselves but the objects in them … the place had shrunk in Josie’s absence’.
Some people found the stories, like Barcelona 1975, which contain graphic homosexual sex scenes at bit too explicit and felt they sometimes seemed gratuitous.
We also discussed Tóibín’s tendency to use a structure of talking to a third party and whether we found this worked well for us. Someone felt she eventually became the third party – as if Tóibín was talking to her. But we also felt that it enhanced the separation emigrants can feel on returning home, that the people of their past – especially people with whom they’ve had an intimate relationship – can seem closer than the other people they meet and the memories powerful.
A favourite story was Two Women and it was thought a ‘very skilful story’. There are so many things going on; multiple relationships. We also felt The New Spain was very clever.
We concluded it had been a very successful choice: a book we’d enjoyed but which had also inspired some good discussion.
We were a small but nonetheless very engaged group on Tuesday last and had a really good discussion both on the chosen book, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and then on the current state of the novel in general, inspired by Louise telling us that in a recent lecture at Goldsmith’s College, Will Self had announced the death of the Modern Novel.
Firstly, the book itself. A brief synopsis – the protagonist, Sofia is an anthropologist and offspring of ill-matched and now divorced parents. Over the years her mother has developed a problem with her legs leaving her unable to walk. Mother and daughter go to a specialist clinic in Spain to try to discover whether mother’s inability to use her legs has a physical cause.
In the course of their visit they run into an exotic assortment of characters – the suave, impossibly expensive doctor (is he a quack ?), an over-helpful bisexual embroiderer and her executive trainer boyfriend. None of these characters are fully developed and in the course of this short novel (217 pages) exasperation sets in (in the reader that is). There is a sense that the author is working through a tick box of requirements – mother/daughter relationships, daughter/father relationships, feminism, hypochondria, gender fluidity. There’s a fair amount of obligatory psychobabble too – “You are using your mother as a shield to protect yourself from making a life.” So overall there was a sense that Deborah Levy was trying too hard to produce a book with global appeal, quirky enough to get on a major literary prize longlist, and it didn’t quite come off.
Which led us on to consider whether contemporary novels try to cram too much in, leaving the reader with indigestible content ? Is there a hidden list of issues which authors feel they need to introduce in order for their work to be relevant. And is the all-pervading tone of “elusive ambiguity” – never knowing quite where you are with any character – the dominant theme of current writing ? Answers in the Comments Please !
We seem to be on a roll with our poetry selections – this month’s choice, 40 Sonnets by Don Paterson generated as lively a discussion as the previous two poets we’ve looked at. This is Paterson’s latest collection for which he won the Costa Prize for Poetry. At first glance, a collection entirely made up of sonnets seemed a tall order but we found we liked this form – Paterson makes it work well. 14 lines is just long enough for effective scene setting before (sometimes) delivering a killer punch. Here he is on the subject of sonnets as short poems in an interview in The Herald in Scotland “It’s not going to give the reader the chance to get bored. But hopefully they will get to the end and think: there’s a lot more in this…..and read it again.” We certainly didn’t get bored and enjoyed teasing out the meanings in our discussion.
The poems may all be in the same form but their subject matter and construction is varied. There is a tenderly recounted outing with his sons (The Roundabout), a political yet personal account of a Palestinian father at the bedside of his injured son (The Foot), the banal questions the audience ask at a poetry reading (Requests) spiritual pretensions (The Eye) and the exquisite The Wave where The Wave itself is the voice of the poem “nothing in my head beyond the bliss of my own breaking, how the long foreshore would hear my full confession and I’d drain into the shale till I was filtered pure.”
Paterson has the knack of making the reader present to his subject matter – “on the steel bench knowing what was taking shape, she tried to stand” (Mercies) – we are immediately beside the steel bench in the vet’s surgery emotionally engaged in the life/death continuum of a much loved dog.
There’s a mid-book digression of a couple of pages of prose called The Version about a poet entering some sort of competition solely for the money and with the intent to be ironic. This backfires and his attempts at irony are lost in translation. Highly entertaining and unexpected in the middle of a book of poetry !
So poetry is alive and well in our quiet space upstairs at The Roebuck. Many thanks to Kay for suggesting 40 Sonnets.
Tuesday evening was full of surprises for us. Surprise that our usual venue was closed for redecoration so we took refuge in The Mitre. And surprise that a poetry collection by a complete unknown (well until she won the T S Eliot prize that is) turned out to be so good.
The overarching themes in this collection China, Chinese culture and Chinese customs intermingled with personal reminiscences. Sarah Howe is Anglo-Chinese and was brought up in Hong Kong for the first seven years of her life before moving to the UK. This gives her the outsider’s eye and ear for detail. In Crossing from Guangdong her description of the border guard at the checkpoint is particularly well-drawn “The lichen-green uniformed official, with his hat brimmed in black gloss, his elegant white-gloved hands, his holstered gun, slowly mounts the rubbered steps, sways with careful elbows down the aisle.”
[There were barnacles……] is another very well-judged short poem. To say of such prosaic creatures “And when the russet tide came they opened themselves like unfamiliar lovers” is spot on; the reader has a very clear sense of the barnacle’s tentative response to the inrush of water.
The third poem we looked at closely was Tame – a rather gruesome fable based on the Chinese proverb “It is more profitable to raise geese than daughters.” We thought this felt like the reworking of a Grimms fairytale in a Chinese setting. Once we had discovered the story of Sarah Howe’s mother (see this TED talk ) Tame had an added poignancy.
There are some poems in the collection where she overreaches herself and she has been roundly criticised by the old guard. But taken as a whole this is a refreshingly different debut collection which we thoroughly enjoyed. Hat tip Ruth for suggesting it.
Pippa has very kindly written this review which brings into focus the highlights of Clive James’ recently published (April 2015) poetry collection (subject of our discussion on Tuesday evening).
Before I read these poems I knew of Clive James only as a witty and amusing broadcaster. How ignorant I was! In fact he has written much fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and in 2013 translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. This latest volume of poetry undoubtedly adds to his reputation.
The 37 poems of Sentenced to Life have all been written in the last four years, since James was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia, and many of the poems have a valedictory tone – the more so, because James apparently has no belief in any form of afterlife. But memories, where can you take them to? Take one last look at them. They end with you. (From ‘Star System’).
The poems are dedicated to Clive James’ wife Prue, and are shot through with feelings of loss and remorse – loss of life and of this world, which James imminently faces; and loss of the relationship with his wife which he has brought about by his infidelity. In ‘Balcony Scene’, he addresses his wife directly: Worse than a waste Was how I hurt myself through hurting you. And: There is a man here you might care to save From too much solitude. He calls for you. Here two opposing forces will collide – Your proper anger and my shamed regret – With all the weight of justice on your side.
Some of the poems return to childhood memories of James’ homeland, Australia, intertwining nostalgia with musings on his present predicament. ( ‘Manly Ferry’, ‘Cabin Baggage’ and ‘Tempe Dump’). A few have less introspective subjects such as the artist Nina Kogan (‘Nina Kogan’s Geometric Heaven’); or, filming elephants on safari (‘One Elephant, Two Elephant’). But it is the emotional perception and honesty of James’ more personal writing, especially in his acknowledgement of his past failings, which makes these poems so memorable and so touching. Here is a man who bravely wears his heart on his sleeve – and yet the poems are skilfully crafted, and do not slip into over-sentimentality.
In the main, we felt this was an enjoyable page-turner. It’s all about fantasy, the tales we tell ourselves about ourselves. In The Apple Tree Yard the key players have gone the extra step of acting out that fantasy to the point where it takes them over. There were a few reservations about the credibility of the plot after the pivotal point where the attack happens. But, overall a good choice to take on holiday, which a lot of us seem to have done.
Here is an very insightful post which expands on our discussion
Books are often the first casualty of an enthusiastic declutter or downsize so taking a few minutes to go through our shelves we each chose a book or books we would never part with; here are the results …
The Bible & The Puffin Book of Magic Verse
There are two books I would never throw away. The first is a bit Desert Island Discs – despite not having set foot in a church or picked the book up for a long time it has to be The Bible. The second is a book I bought when I was ten. I think I dragged it along to a few Book Club meetings. ‘The Puffin Book of Magic Verse’ chosen by Charles Causley. The introduction says ‘All poetry is magic. Charles Causley’s far- ranging anthology includes not only incantations and curses, and poems about elves, changelings , wizards, ghosts and mermaids, but it also introduces poems on the mystery and the magic of the natural world and everyday life.’ The selection includes a poem from Cherokee Indians – A Spell to Destroy Life that I couldn’t even bear to touch the page of, let alone read when I was ten- to Shakespeare, Blake, Bronte, Yeats , Frost, Hardy etc.
The pages are brown with age, the pages have all come away from the binding, but the book still captures me with its magic.
Possession by A S Byatt
The book that immediately came to mind for me was A.S. Byatt’s POSSESSION. It’s many years since I read it – in fact probably when it first came out in paperback in 1991. But the power of the excitement I got caught up in so early in the book has stayed with me. I was so excited myself by the discovery of the letters and can still feel the awe of how amazing it would be to make an academic discovery like that which would have a huge impact on current understanding and to possess the knowledge alone in that first instance. Then there is the interconnectedness of the old and new love stories, the nature of possession – whether it be a lover or an academic discovery. I should re-read it!
A Grief Observed – C S Lewis
This may surprise those who think of CSL for “The Narnia Chronicles” or “The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe” or less commonly his works on theological topics. Lewis found love late in life with Joy Davidman whom he married at the age of 57/58, 17 years his junior, almost immediately after they met she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. They married in a civil ceremony in 1957 but in in 1958 they entered into a Christian marriage celebrated at her hospital bedside. She died in 1960. This book is a profound reflection on the grief which ensued.
The Plague – Albert Camus & Revolution in the Head – Ian MacDonald
It feels a bit pretentious choosing a Nobel Laureate but it was an A level text which has remained with me long after studying it, with my handwritten notes from another era.
The second book is a definitive guide to every song The Beatles ever wrote plus a bit of cultural commentary on the Sixties and their place in history. All very niche but a great antidote to today’s marketing-led music. There is a wonderful chronology in the back under four headings – The Beatles, UK Pop, Current Affairs and Culture. Can’t throw it away as, believe it or not, I still refer to it from time to time not just about The Beatles but also for the glossary (Doo-wop anyone?)
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
My most precious book is ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain. Published in 1933, it is a powerful autobiographical account of the brutality of World War I, and its pointless waste of human life.
Aged just twenty when the war started, Vera lost, one by one, her fiancé, beloved brother, and two closest men friends. Other friends returned, maimed. Vera Brittain wished this book to be a lasting memorial to them, and to the futility of war.
Vera’s story is also an inspiring portrayal of feminism in action. Before the war, she struggled against her parents’ opposition to win her place at Oxford – a rare achievement for a woman at that time. Then, as war dragged on, Vera reacted with passion to the events which shattered her life and the lives of those she loved most. In the midst of her grief, she decided that in order to honour those young men who had given their lives, she too must not flinch from playing her full part; and so she gave up her Oxford studies (to which she later returned), and became an auxiliary nurse, caring for the wounded and dying in the carnage of Northern France. Her experiences turned her into a lifelong pacifist writer and speaker.
When she died in 1970, according to her wishes her ashes were scattered over the grave of her brother in Italy, by her daughter Shirley Williams.
This book reminds us not only of the horror of war, but also of the nobility, courage and idealism of the human spirit at its best – and that is why I love it so much.
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – Kate Summerscale
The book’s main interest lies in the fascinating historical record of a real woman’s travails in the mid 19th century. Mrs Robinson’s real live divorce in 1858 – just after English law relaxed the rules on divorce and took it out of the church’s control – was tilted in her husband’s favour. The only spurious evidence of adultery came from her diary – which, written by a very intellectual, imaginative person represented her desires, rather than fact! Was she suffering from mental instability?
And finally a miscellany of treasured books
Choosing books I would never part with proved more of a challenge than at first realised. Books one loved in childhood and early teens included, I suspect for many of us, Louisa May Alcott’s enduring classics Little Women and Good Wives. Funnily they didn’t seem at all old fashioned at the time of first reading as the characters had so much robust vitality and each of the four sisters was so acutely described. I also loved and still sometimes re-read a book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, published in 1943 and a best seller for many years after, about a dreamy bookish girl from a struggling immigrant family and the character of New York in the early years of the 20th century. Also I relish two short story collections by women writers, The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy and Doris Lessing’s A Man and Two Women.
Is there any book you couldn’t bear to part with ? If so, please let us know in the Comments section.
We were evenly divided on this book last night but as we are book champions I’m reblogging this very positive, insightful post which I found very helpful.
Helen MacDonald’s aching, raw story of loss and relationship speaks so much of longing that reading it is as much about being fed, sustained by grief, as her hawk is fed by the death it has dealt. Indeed the two, love and death, are linked.
We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost
We love because we will lose, or be lost to, that which we love. It’s the presence of death which fiercens the love. Mabel, Helen’s hawk, is of course overwhelmingly real – but that reality is thickened by all the metaphors accreting to her. The potency is the potency of what the hawk represents, in history, in literature, in imagination to us.
To me she was bright, vital…
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