Speaking of Love by Angela Young

I enjoy reading Angela Young’™s blog Writing, Life and the Universe and so of course I just had to read her book, Speaking of Love. I found it a moving book, but never sentimental and as stated on the book cover it is:

‘œ ‘¦ a novel about what happens when people who love each other don’™t say so. It deals passionately and honestly with human breakdown. And it tells of our need for stories and how stories can help make sense of the random nature of life.’

This is a story told by three people ‘“ Iris, her daughter Vivie, and Matthew. It takes place over three days leading up to the story-telling festival where Iris is performing. Iris and Vivie are estranged and gradually the reason is revealed as all three characters tell their stories. As the book starts Matthew and his dad Dick are about to travel to the festival, Iris is already there and Vivie, living in London is having a crisis in her life, unbeknown to the others. Matthew and Vivie had been childhood friends, living next door to each other at the time when Iris first suffered a breakdown, which is later revealed to be schizophrenia.

This is also a book about story-telling, indeed the book is structured into separate tales which interlink and finally unite. Along with the stories of the three characters’™ lives there are also the stories that Iris tells. These are reminiscent of folk and fairy tales. Appropriately, Iris treasures the book of fairy tales that had belonged to her mother. I must have read all the books of fairy tales in the junior library as a child – I loved them. So it was with nostalgia that I read Iris’™s stories such as ‘œEarth and Sea’, the story of the fisherman, his wife and Murmurina their daughter, ‘œborn with a fat fishtail that glistened where she should have had legs’ and who ‘œmade ‘˜O’™ shapes with her mouth when she should have had a voice’.

The story-telling motif also runs through Dick and Matthew’™s journey to the festival. Dick has planned it to take place over three days, stopping over night at various places and using only the minor roads. I liked the comparison of travelling in this way as ‘œdarning’ by going under and over the motorways and A roads.

The main theme is the effects that not communicating has on the people we love. Iris’™s father is locked in his grief after the death of his wife and Iris believes he blames her for her mother’™s death; Iris isolated by her illness can’™t communicate her love to her daughter; Matthew, who learnt at the age of twelve that ‘œif you say how you feel you lose control over what happens next’ couldn’™t tell Vivie he loves her; and Vivie knew that ‘œyou had to be on guard because you never knew when your own insides ‘“ or anyone else’™s insides ‘“ might spill out.’

The book explores the difficulties and effects of living with someone with schizophrenia, burying frightening experiences and the way we lose control over events. Dick sums it up in his advice to Matthew:

‘œThe real risk, it seems to me, lies in not talking about the things that matter the most. That’™s what made Iris ill. What we don’™t say doesn’™t go away. It stays inside and after a while of not being spoken about it turns against us. ‘¦ The things we don’™t talk about fester and then they infect us. They eat away at us like a cancer.’

The book is full of beautiful descriptions ‘“ of trees, particularly the laburnum (the “story-telling tree”) and gardens in East Anglia, of the mediaeval castle over looking the Bristol Channel and the festival performers and the landscape of England as Dick and Matthew travel across country, which brings the story alive.

The opening sentence sums up Iris’s story “I have come home, after a long and difficult journey.” Everything after that is the story of how she got there. A book worth reading.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – August Books Part Two

The trilogy is made up of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Taken together the books form a grand epic, encompassing parallel universes and their inhabitants. It’s a fabulous story, featuring armoured bears who talk, witches, spectres, angels, and tiny hand sized creatures who fly on the backs of dragonflies.

I think of it as a modern myth, not just for children, but for all ages (although I wonder what age this would best suit – not for young children, I wouldn’t have thought). Karen Armstrong in her informative and most helpful book A Short History of Myth writes, ‘We are meaning-seeking creatures … mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.‘ Concerning the novel and myth she writes:

Yet the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not’real’ and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives long after we have laid the book aside.

Yes, these books are exactly that. I read the books between July and August and they are all compelling reading, both in terms of storyline (with many parallel worlds) and in ideas. I am still contemplating the ideas and themes. My copy of Karen Armstrong’s book is in a Limited Signed Edition of Box Sets and includes an essay by Philip Pullman, which I had forgotten was there. In it he writes, ‘A myth is intoxicating, because it is something other than just a story.‘ How right he is and what a good description of his own trilogy.

I find it impossible to do justice to the plot in this post. I think the best thing is to read the books and look at Philip Pullman’s website. This is my brief and inadequate summary:

The main characters are Lyra and Will, who are from different worlds and the story is essentially about their journey into adolescence, from innocence into knowledge. ‘Dust’, seemingly similar to the idea of original sin, plays a large part in this. Once children reach adolescence Dust is then attracted to them, as they lose their innocence. The first book concerns the search for the source of Dust in Lyra’s world.

Will is introduced in the second book, The Subtle Knife. The action takes place in several universes and Will becomes the bearer of the Subtle Knife, which enables him to cut windows from one universe into a parallel one. In one of these worlds he meets Lyra and they join forces.

Daemons, representing the soul, feature in Lyra’s world where they are separate physical entities. A daemon takes the form of an animal or bird and in children can change form until the child becomes an adult. Then he or she assumes a form reflecting the person’s personality, for example a daemon in the form of dog reflects a faithful person, a cat an independent person, etc. In Will’s world (our world) the soul is an integral part of a person, and is invisible and non-physical.

The Amber Spyglass completes the trilogy, climaxing in a perilous journey through the Land of the Dead and the greatest war ever between the worlds and heaven, with the defeat of heaven and the death of ‘God’ in the form of the Ancient of Days, who is not the Creator, but a demented and powerless being, whose form loosened and dissolved: ‘A mystery dissolving in mystery.

The trilogy abounds with themes, alluding to Milton’s Paradise Lost in a retelling of the Creation and the Fall, where the ‘Authority‘ (the Ancient of Days) is a fallen angel and Lyra is seen as a second Eve. The relationship between the body and soul is evident through the concept of daemons, introduced in Northern Lights and this is developed throughout until it becomes explicit in The Amber Spyglass, particularly in the description of the passage through the Land of the Dead. Lyra has to leave her daemon behind and it’s at this point that it becomes evident that Will’s soul or daemon is also unable to travel with him. Lyra lives up to her name here (Orpheus in Greek mythology is able to charm beasts with his lyre), where she is able to win round the harpy ‘No-Name’ and release human beings from the Land of the Dead.

The question of the nature of consciousness and when it becomes self-consciousness for example during adolescence is explored. Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, when they become self-conscious and aware of evil and sin. Dust which is invisible to the human eye is the physical representation of original sin. It is attracted to adults and is the means of conferring consciousness and wisdom. It seems to me to be based on the biblical account of God creating Man from dust and also on the concept of dust being dirty and thus sinful, but it is also the element that indicates a living being.

Of course, one thing that comes to mind in reading these books is the question of their relationship with Christianity. I’m not surprised to read that they have attracted much criticism as being anti-Christian. One of the characters is Mary Malone, an ex-nun who has lost her faith on her realisation that there ‘wasn’t any God at all – The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.

Philip Pullman’s view expressed in an interview in Surefish (Christian Aid) in November 2002 – (see here) is that he is telling a story. He is not Mary, she is a character in his book  – he is somewhere between being an atheist and an agnostic.

Another enlightening interview was recorded between Pullman and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2004 – see here.

Other interesting articles I found are an interview Telegraph in January 2002 and one on the BBC website dated March 2004.

Booking Through Thursday – Goldilocks

Goldilocks September 6, 2007

Today’s Booking Through Thursday’s question is a good one:

Okay, so the other day, a friend was commenting on my monthly reading list and asked when I found the time to read. In the ensuing discussion, she described herself as a ‘œgoldilocks’ when it comes to reading’“she needs to have everything juuuuuust right to be able to focus. This caught my attention because, first, I thought that was a charming way of describing the condition, but, two, while we’™ve talked about our reading habits, this is an interesting wrinkle. I’™d never really thought about it that way.

So, this is my question to you’“are you a Goldilocks kind of reader?

Do you need the light just right, the background noise just so loud but not too loud, the chair just right, the distractions at a minimum?

Or can you open a book at any time and dip right in, whether it’™s for twenty seconds, while waiting for the kettle to boil, or indefinitely, like while waiting interminably at the hospital’“as long as the book is open in front of your nose, you’™re happy to read?

I’m most definitely not a Goldilocks reader. I read wherever I can – yes, when I’m waiting for the kettle to boil and certainly whilst waiting at the hospital, unless it’s an appointment that I’m really worried about and then I can’t concentrate – but I’ll try. The only time I really can’t read is when I’m too ill either to hold a book or to concentrate on the words – that’s most frustrating.

Times and places I’ve read include:

  • Waiting for the lift in the tower block building where I used to work – I could snatch a few minutes there.
  • Whilst cooking – whilst waiting for the timer to go off for the next stage in a recipe.
  • Whilst knitting, if the book will stay open on my knee – that’s one example of where it does have to be just the right book.
  • When waiting in the car whilst my husband is in a DIY shop – he can spend as long in there as I can in a library or bookshop, I have no objections about that.
  • Break times at work – a job where we had to take individual breaks – that was really good as I could stretch a few extra minutes if I was lucky.
  • During the adverts on TV, and sometimes during a programme if it’s not too hard to follow.
  • In bed.
  • On a plane journey, at the airport, railway station, bus stop.
  • In the garden of course, preferably in a hammock, but that’s not a definite requirement, any old chair will do, or the on grass.
  • In a cafe or tearoom (but not a restaurant – that would be too unsociable).
  • Walking round the house (I used to get told off as a child for doing this – I’d jump down the first three steps to the turn of the stairs and amble down the rest).

I keep a book in the car and take one in my handbag ready for that unexpected time when there just might be an opportunity to read. I can’t actually read whilst travelling in a car or bus as it makes me feel sick, but other journeys are great for reading.

Season of Mists …

The year is on the turn and autunm is on its way. Here is the view from the front of the house early this morning

and a close up view of the cattle in the mist.

We’ve had the most fruit ever from the apple and plum trees in the back garden, so it really is a “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!”

I love autumn.

August’s Books Part One

Books read in August

The Crooked House by Agatha Christie
Made in Heaven by Adele Geras
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert

I started August reading The Crooked House by Agatha Christie, which I had borrowed from the library. It’s been a long time since I’d read any of Agatha Christie’s books and I felt like reading something quick and easy after some of the long books I’ve read this year. This is a short book and an easy read, but enjoyable because I didn’t have to think too much and I guessed the murderer’s identity. Sometimes that’s annoying but in this instance I found it satisfying to spot the clues along the way – and be right.

Agatha Christie described this as “one of my best.” Neither Miss Marple nor Hercule Poirot feature in the book and as my current knowledge of Christie’s books are from the TV programmes I found this a refreshing change. That’s not to say I dislike Miss Marple and Poirot – on the contrary I avidly read and enjoyed many of the books featuring these two characters and love both Joan Hickson’s and David Suchet’s performances and the productions as a whole.

Aristide, the head of the Leonides family has been murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection. It seemed that they were one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion, but things are not what they seem. His young widow, fifty years his junior, is the obvious suspect. But the murderer has reckoned without the tenacity of Charles Hayward, fiancé of Sophia, the late millionaire’s granddaughter.

Next up was Adele Geras’s Made in Heaven. It’s a story that pulls you along – even though I could see where it was heading and the ending was no surprise. The main themes of the book are marriage and divorce and relationships. A traditional wedding is being planned between Zannah and Adrian. The story opens with the lunch that has been arranged so that Zannah’s parents can meet Adrian’s mother and stepfather. Zannah wants a perfect, elaborate and very expensive wedding, to make up for her first wedding in a Registry Office, which ended in divorce. She knows exactly what she wants – the dress, flowers, church, reception and so on. The first problem that arises is the strange behaviour of Joss, Zannah’s mother, on meeting Adrian’s parents and everything goes downhill from then on, from her relationship with Adrian and Cal, her ex-husband to that of Adrian with Isis, Zannah’s daughter. Obviously there is a secret that will eventually surface and cause complications all round.

The characters are believable and the analysis of their relationships is good, so much so that I found some of the characters exasperating. The descriptions of the wedding preparations, the homes and garden, the beautiful dress materials, the sumptuous, delicious food bring the book to life, although I found it intriguing that one of the locations is Altrincham. I used to live near Altrincham and went to school there, but apart from the name I didn’t recognise it in this book – but then that wasn’t important in terms of the plot. However, I did get quite excited when “Altrincham” was mentioned as I’ve never come across it in fiction before and wanted more detail.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman and Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert are much longer books.

I found all of them to be satisfying and excellent books. I’ve already written about Season of the Witch here. The Amber Spyglass is the final book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials and I’ll write a separate post about all three books.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a contrast to the other books. The story is narrated by a boy who leaves California to attend a college in New England and becomes involved with a group of students studying ancient Greek. From the back cover:

Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of normal morality their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.

There is a death recounted in the prologue. The book then goes back in time and the mystery unfolds. I found it just a bit too long and drawn out in parts and wanted to wind it up before it actually finished, but taken as a whole the tension and pace of the book was maintained.

R.I.P.II Challenge

I didn’t think I’d join in with this challenge, but looking at the books Carl gives as examples of scary books I realise that I’ve already read and enjoyed some of them – The Woman in White, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Thirteenth Tale, Season of the Witch, Dr Jykll and Mr Hyde and Titus Groan for example, so I’ve decided it’s not too scary for me after all.

So I’m going for:

Peril the Fourth (Otherwise known as Just a Bit of Peril):
Some of you wonderful readers, or would-be readers, may have a tendency to shy away from this genre, thinking it is just not your cup of poisoned tea. However, it wouldn’™t be a challenge if I wasn’™t challenging you.
This peril is for those of you who want to take a chance. Simply choose one book that you feel meets the criteria for Readers Imbibing Peril II and, well, imbibe it
!

and I’ll be reading Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, partly because I have already started to read The Murders in the Rue Morgue and want to finish it. I also remember watching from behind my fingers an old movie of the Pit and the Pendulum and that’s in the collection as well.