A blog for everything bookish

Friday 7 February 2014

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

I am a bookaholic, I think we’ve established that. I find it hard to imagine a life without books, a life not being surrounded by books. E-Readers horrify me, their clinical un-bookishness, their empty, soulless, paperless, unfeelingness in which you can carry around an entire library and yet, for me, the very fact that I can’t carry around my library gives me a fuzzy-warm feeling of security. Wherever I am, whatever book I am carrying with me, I know that my library is waiting patiently for me at home. Books on every surface, that’s me. And of course I know that e-Readers are a boon to many, not least of which to those who live in climates that eat paper alive, but not to me. Not to me. I am a covetous bibliophile. My children can grow up and move out but my books are mine until I die.

So imagine the pleasure to discover this wonderful little book about a woman who loves books, if you can comprehend the idea of this, EVEN MORE THAN ME. It is rare for me to encounter someone who loves books as much as me, but in reading this small volume I discovered that perhaps I’m only an average bibliophile after all. Perhaps in the world of book loving, I’m a mid-ranker. And I’m ashamed (only a little, and perhaps equally a little proud) to say that it raised a kind of competitive book-loverishness in me. I found myself measuring her against me, and sadly found myself wanting.

But that’s enough about my bruised ego, let’s talk about the book. It’s, just kidding. Any book that speaks so lovingly and exploratively about the art of loving books was bound to be worth a read. In Ex Libris Fadiman shares, though the course of 18 short essays, her musings on the challenges and art of reading. She talks about the terror of inter-mixing libraries (I have never done this; my husband’s science fiction books are squeezed into whatever tiny space I allow them, usually hidden behind a pile of books that are ALL MINE), of the difficulty of deciding which duplicate volume to remove, the impossibility of not-proof reading, the compulsion to read anything including catalogues, the pleasures of reading aloud and the dreaded question of how best to store your books whilst addressing the necessity to always have one within easy reach.

Each chapter addresses a different aspect of book reading. No doubt different readers would have different favourites, but the one that really struck home to me was a chapter called “Never do that to a book” which addresses the question which splits readers right down the middle: is your love of books courtly (i.e. you treat books like articles of fine art) or carnal (you practically devour your books, write on them, bend their spine, rip pages out, etc)? Now I will confess, here and now, that I am a courtly lover of books; the idea of writing on a book horrifies me. Never have my books seen highlighter pen or markers. The idea of ripping out chapters after you’ve read them, as Fadiman’s father did to make the volume lighter and easier to carry, makes me sick to my stomach. Fadiman, however, sees it quite differently; she sees her connection to the book as physical and temporal and the idea of picking up an old volume and discovering the notes of her much younger self is part of how she connects with the books that she reads. She literally ‘loves them to pieces’, and whilst my instinctive inner book-lover screams at the idea of it, I can see what she means. The other night my daughter came to me and asked me if we had any copies of The Chronicles of Narnia she could read. I led her to my seven ancient volumes, yellowed, faded and a little loose-leaved. I passed them to her with shaky hands and asked her, as calmly as I could, to treat them carefully; they are old and fragile and precious and easily broken. Then she opened up The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and there, on the first page, in the top left corner, in tentatively pressed pencil was my name and my address, written to claim ownership of these precious articles when I was around nine or ten and reading these wonderful books that had been handed down to me. When I saw my shaky (but frankly neater than it is now) handwriting in the cover, it meant something to me. So whilst I’m not about to get out the Sharpie and scrawl all over my signed copy of The Goldfinch, the idea of writing in books, of loving them to pieces has become a lot less abhorrent to me.

What is lovely about this book is how Fadiman shares both the joy and frailties of book loving; there is a lot of humour in her writing, and a kind of intimacy as she uses her personal experience and anecdotes to show where excessive book-loving can lead. It is a funny, quirky and enlightening book which has made me think a lot about the way I read and what it means to me. It made me want to pick up a book and read to my kids again (apparently they’re never too old, though I tried it this morning and after about 6 lines my daughter took the book from my hands and put it carefully back in the bookcase, a meaningful look in her eye), or perhaps read as a family. When we recently visited the Harry Potter experience for my daughter’s birthday, I read extracts from The Tales of Beedle the Bard in the car on the way home, and it was weird but also kind of interesting, and little different, really, to listening to the radio. This book has helped me to appreciate, and in some ways deepen, my life-long love of reading. It is life-affirming and a blessing, and an absolute pleasure to read.  

Ex Libris receives a bookish 9 out of 10 Biis. 

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna

I wanted to write a review that did justice to this wonderful book, but I fear I just don't have the skill. There are books which are fun or entertaining to read, there are books that create new and unfamiliar worlds that make us think, there are books that are clever and funny and there are books that tell stories so sensitively and with a kind of loving care that feels feather-light that it is almost like you are watching it unfold right in front of you. This is one of those stories. Ostensibly it is a story of a man rebuilding a house that had gone to ruin in his village. Yet it is much more than that. It is a masterful piece of story-telling, a lesson in how great fiction can be beautiful, sorrowful, stirring and devastating, leaving you feeling that a window in the world has been opened and unsure whether you wish it was still shut. 

The story begins with Duro, a solitary man who lives on the outskirts of the quiet Croatian village of Gost (rhymes with ghost), who observes some newcomers moving into the ‘Blue House’. The Blue House has gone to ruin over the years, hasn’t been lived in for some time, and the presence of the newcomers is something of a surprise. It is not long until Duro visits to find the English family who have taken over this abandoned house: Laura and her son Matthew and daughter Grace, an absent, busy husband, who plan to develop properties in Croatia for rental or onward sale. Duro, a handyman, agrees to work for the family, helping to restore the house to its former glory.

The town of Gost has its ghosts, however, and it’s not long until the newcomers’ presence starts to bring this to the surface. As he restores the house, Duro begins to uncover his own memories of events which he had buried in the past. A mosaic is uncovered under the plaster, a fountain in the garden too, both of which the family help to restore, bringing Duro’s adversary, Krešimir the house's previous owner (who Duro reveals had 'no right' to sell it), protesting from the village. It soon becomes apparent that there is a shared history and a shared enmity between Duro and Krešimir which centres around Krešimir’s sister Anka who is mysteriously missing. Then there is Fabjan, the owner of the Zodijak bar in town, who Duro enjoys annoying and who appears later, somewhat menacingly, hanging around in the darkness outside the Blue House. It is apparent that something has happened in the past, something terrible, and that terrible something brings menace into the life of the new family in the Blue House.

Duro makes for a fascinating character. He is a builder, a restorer, he befriends and both helps and protects the new family, welcoming them to Gost. There is a strong hint of attraction towards Laura, a disinterest in her husband who visits rarely, respect for Grace whose awkwardness and perceptiveness he uncovers quickly, a certain disinterest in Matthew who he sees as somewhat lazy and undisciplined and yet he teaches him to shoot and takes him hunting. In this way Duro works his way into the hearts of the family.

But Duro is a hunter, and though his actions seem kindly and friendly it is evident that he has an agenda and his agenda is unsettling the village and putting the family at risk. His restoration of the Blue House has as much to do with his relationship with Anka as helping the family. It is Grace, the perceptive one, who notices the disparity between what Duro says and what he means, what he shares and what he is withholding. Eventually it is with Grace he shares his story.

Underlying all of this clever book is the terrible events of the Yugoslav wars, the ethnic cleansing and the ways in which neighbours can turn against each other. Duro has his ghosts, as does everyone in Gost, and in a way he uses the presence of the newcomers to bring those ghosts to the surface.

It is an excellent book. It is hard to describe how truly excellent it is. As I was reading, the sense that the book was building to something terrible, a terrible event in all of their histories, heightened the tension but this tension was juxtaposed against fields filled with flowers, beautiful scenery, the burgeoning friendship between Duro and the family. In this way Forna uses contrast with skillful accuracy: the beauty of the scenery is contrasted with the bodies you know are buried within it, the kindness of Duro contrasted with his hunter's instincts and quiet vengefulness. Yet it is also a story about restoration, we follow Duro restoring the Blue House and his restoration is loving, and yet it is more than the house he is restoring. It is the memory of its occupants that he is bringing to the surface, bringing them back as a punishment, both for himself and for others. He restores the house to its former glory, and through this seemingly innocent act shows how hard it is for people to move on. In this way Forna explores how difficult it must be for communities torn apart by civil war, especially a civil war with the brutality that was experienced in this region, to rebuild, to go forward and forget the past.

The conclusion of the story truly left me reeling. I knew it was building to something, and in the end it didn’t go where I expected but I still felt hollowed out by it. I won’t share it here, I wouldn’t want to spoil the story (because you really must go and read it) but it was sad and horrifying and emotionally stunning.

The Hired Man is a wonderful book. It has an engaging story, with complex characters hiding from (or running towards) a devastating history from which they can never escape. What is brilliant about it is how Forna distracts you from the terrible undercurrents with a diverting surface story. On the one hand it is gentle, the story of a man sensitively restoring a house which had gone to ruin. On the other hand it is a story of horrific violence. The fields of flowers disguise the landmines and buried bodies, just as Forna's beautiful words draw your eye unflinchingly towards a crime that many wish to remain hidden.

And for the record, I am glad this window has been opened, however much I wish that the real-life events which underpin this story had never occurred.  

The Hired Man receives an awed 10/10 Biis.