A blog for everything bookish

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones

Being a happy subscriber of the wonderful And Other Stories publishing house, I have, of course, sat on my first book for a considerable length of time before getting around to reading it. I should point out that this is not unusual for me. My bookshelves are peppered with books I just couldn’t wait to read and which, several years later, haven’t managed to push themselves into my hands or in front of my eyes. Yes, I am a fickle reader if a consistent one...?

Anywho, I’m glad to say I finally got around to reading this book by Albanian writer Elvria Dones, a book which explores an unusual Albanian tradition in which a woman can choose to live as a man, as a ‘sworn virgin’, taking their place as the head of the family. In this story Hana, or Mark, is in the process of emigrating to America, where her cousin Lila lives. Hana/Mark is also embarking on another kind of emigration, or perhaps it is truer to say a return, from living as a man to living as the woman that she is. Through the course of the story we follow Hana/Mark as she makes this transformation, gaining insights through flashbacks into how she came to become a sworn virgin in the first place.

I enjoy stories about duality, so this story was bound to be of interest to me, and Dones has a light and easy way of writing so that the story sweeps you along. That being said, I felt that the exploration of Hana’s journey back to becoming a women was a little lightweight. This story offered a great opportunity to reflect deeply on issues of gender, and whilst Dones does touch upon this, it is after all the cornerstone of the story, there’s a superficiality to it which seems to boil down the ‘manliness’ of Mark into a few core activities: Mark drinks raki and smokes and has a pared down way of thinking, whereas Hana does housework and obsesses about her looks and losing her virginity. In this way Dones presents gender as a cloak which can be pulled on and off, something which is reduced to parodied actions rather than an essence. And in some ways I think this is true, this is an interesting way to consider gender as something which has only a superficial impact upon a person’s identity, and perhaps this was the point Dones was making, but if so I’d have liked that to be a little more explored and perhaps a little more transparent. Perhaps I am just a lazy reader.

The strength in Dones’s writing is in the characterisation. Whereas gender plays a surprisingly insignificant role considering the subject matter, the characters of Hana and Lila, as well as Lila’s daughter Jonida really shine. I loved how Dones presents all the characters as forceful and single-minded: Lila and Hana spend as much time fighting as they do caring for each other, and the interplay between the two is touching and realistic. Equally, Dones draws a vivid picture of Albania from the mountainous poverty-stricken villages of the North to the more cosmopolitan yet quirky city of Tirana. Dones brings the country into high definition with her descriptions of life in the villages and mountains, the interplay between northerners and southerner (why are northerners always the peasants?!), the ongoing impact of communism, strange and quirky characters who leap from the page.  In contrast the American scenes seem flat and grey, the country plays less part in Hana’s identity yet offers her the freedom to be who she really is. Hana cannot return to her home country, at least not as a woman.

There was huge scope in this book to explore a whole range of different themes about identity, gender, immigration and the American dream and perhaps that is why I found the book slightly disappointing. On the rear cover Dones is described as a writer who is “unabashed by taboos of any kind” and yet this book didn’t feel like it was taboo breaking. Rather it stood on an interesting concept, a strange old Albanian tradition, and rather than explore it, use it as a vehicle to uncover truths about identity and gender, rather the focus was on Hana’s quest to lose her virginity, as though that was the one thing which would make her a woman. Somehow it seemed a little thin to me, a little superficial and consequently I found it a little annoying.

That being said the story was entertaining and not entirely without weight, and it sent my mind spiralling in lots of different directions. I enjoy stories which make you think, which this one definitely did. I just would have liked it to make me think a little more and maybe present the idea of fulfilment as a woman as being achieved without the assistance of a penis.

Sworn Virgin receives an identity questioning 7 out of 10 Biis.  

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Reflections on reading: making connections

One of the things I notice about reading, or perhaps it is just the books I read and particularly enjoy, is how one book opens connections to another book or another something or other that sends my mind wandering in a direction I wasn’t expecting. And so I have to explore it, or want to explore it, until I read the next book which sets my mind wandering in another, completely different direction and I’m so full of things I want to know and explore that I simply don’t know where to start and I’m left wondering how, with all the information and experiences and ideas there are in the world, anyone has time to ever get to know anything and where does it stop and instead I’ll go and watch an episode of Stargate SG1 or a panel show or a Studio Ghibli movie and try to forget about it all.

Perhaps that is why people watch TV programmes like Coronation Street and Neighbours.  In the infinity of ideas and knowledge and stories one is as good as another.

I have noticed this particularly because it has happened a lot to me lately. I have spent a lot of time following threads and accumulating a list of desires and interests. Right now I am re-reading The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, which is an amazing book, and which I remember from my first read made me want to watch The Seven Samurai (which I did, followed by the car crash that is The Magnificent Seven (comparably) ), learn Greek (which I didn’t), learn Japanese (which I have attempted many times and largely failed) and which cemented in my head forever more the phrases ‘a good samurai will parry the blow’ and ‘if we were using real swords, I'd have killed you’ which are from The Seven Samurai which is, in fact, an excellent film and which spiralled me into a relationship with Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune (who is peerless in  The Hidden Fortress, which inspired Star Wars if you can believe it) and Takashi Shimura (known for Godzilla and the masterpiece Ikiru which everyone should watch).  Right now I am feeling that I absolutely must watch Sanshiro Sugata, which is available in a box set of Kurosawa movies meaning I will have even more Kurosawa movies, as though such a thing were possible. Sigh.

Then thinking back, I begin to acknowledge all the other crazy things I have absolutely had to do after reading a book. Like how after reading Olivia Laing’s To The River I absolutely had to start walking again (which I have done and which I have enjoyed greatly and consequently have thought, quite seriously, about walking The Pennine Way solo and writing a book about it only to find that Simon Armitage has pretty much done that already. Hadrian’s Wall, perhaps?) as well as dig, heavily, into the life and works of Virginia Woolf. And reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries has made me highly curious about the life of Vita Sackville-West and consequently I’m now reading the letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West and I have logged, on my wishlist, Vita Sackville-West’s book Challenge which is a love story about her relationship with Violet. Then I find there are letters from Vita to Virginia Woolf and I absolutely must read those. You get the picture. And I recall having read A Tale for the Time Being and absolutely certainly having to read the Shōbōgenzō (which I have started and not got very far with) and Proust (I endured book 1. No more).

I begin to realise how much influence books have over my life. In fact when I think about it, it is not just my own life that my reading influences but also the life of my family. My husband has been (and will be) subjected to many Kurosawa movies, some of which he wanted to watch and others not so much. And my whole family has been indoctrinated into a love of Japan, primarily because of my reading habits (and viewing...which may have spun from the reading thing). I go for walks with my daughter, which I can directly attribute to my current interest in nature/travel writing (though, to be fair, it did remind me how much I have always enjoyed being in amongst nature) and which will probably worsen when I get around to reading Rebecca Solnit’s book Wanderlust which is sitting on my shelf right now in prime reading position.

All this made me wonder if it would be possible to trace all your reading habits (or mine, perhaps) back to one book. That one critical book which tipped off the next book, which pointed to the next book, which indicated the next three and so on and so forth until before you know it you’re so buried in books you want to read that really the only thing to do is close the library door and go switch on Neighbours.

I am not so sure this isn’t a sign of madness. I look at my library shelves and wonder, if amongst the titles, the varied and seemingly unconnected mass of them, there is a pulsing link, that a cleverer person than me could look at those books and read my neural map there, figure out who I am and every notable experience in my history. Do my books read me? It is disconcerting to think that someone could deduce a key aspect of my character merely from the positioning of A Vindication on the Rights of Women next to Thus Spake Zarathustra, my tattered copy of The Penguin Book of Modern Verse compared to the sharp-edged Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, my neat collection of grey-backed Persephones.  

I wonder how unique this kind of reading journey is. Is that how everyone experiences it? That one book leads to the curiosity for another. If I hadn’t read Angela Carter as an impressionable teenager, would I be a feminist? If I hadn’t read Cloud Atlas, would I have ever discovered The Bridge of San Luis Rey? Writers lead to writers and stories to stories and suddenly the world unfolds as one, great, narrative including the story of us and the story of stones, the story of dinosaurs, the story of art, the story of war and conflict, the story of country, the story of love and peace, the story of the flowers in the field, the story of bones, the story of air, the story of what is fixed and what is broken, the story of time, my story and yours.

I want to read them all; I know that is not possible. So I guess I will continue to plough ahead, following the map the books give me, wherever that leads. 

Sunday 20 July 2014

The Loft by Marlen Haushofer

The Loft is the second book I’ve read by Marlen Haushofer, a largely unknown but brilliant Austrian writer. Haushofer has three books translated to English: The Wall (which I highly recommend), Nowhere Ending Sky (which I’m getting around to) and The Loft. The Wall is a sturdier work, perhaps a more traditional narrative, whereas The Loft leaves a lot more unsaid. Consequently it is more ephemeral, in some respects frustrating, but a highly powered work.

Little happens in The Loft. The story revolves around a week in the life of an unnamed woman and her regular suburban life, her little arguments with her husband Hubert and her curiously distant relationship with her children Ferdinand and Ilse, as well as other peripheral characters. “From our bedroom window we can see a tree that we never seem able to agree about.” the narrator begins, and on this simple detail a stifling, unsettling story unfolds.  It becomes apparent very quickly that there is something not quite right in this little world. Haushofer creates a sense of emotional detachment, that our narrator is simply going through the motions in her daily routine and so are the people around her. That what they are doing are no more than actions, a playing of roles, and that by doing this all participants avoid addressing something true or meaningful between them. The narrator speaks without attachment to any of the members of her family or her acquaintances except, perhaps, when speaking about her dead father-in-law, the original Ferdinand, who seems to be the only person she genuinely cares for. This strange lack of affection seems mirrored in the only activity she undertakes with any seriousness: “My aim is to draw a bird that is not the only bird in the world. By this I mean that anyone looking at it must grasp this fact straight away. To date I have never achieved this and I doubt I ever shall.” It seems that she sees herself as the only bird in the world, and no matter how she tries she shall never feel like she is a part of something. 

The reason for this strange detachment is hidden, though the narrator hints at a lonely childhood and an unsettling event in her own history shortly after Ferdinand was born. At some point she became inexplicably deaf, and because of this deafness her husband Hubert sent her away, to live by herself in the woods with only an unpleasant gamekeeper for company. This terrible event in her history is brought back into focus by the strange delivery of extracts of her diary from that period which appear in her letterbox daily, unsettling her routine. Each day she takes herself to her loft, a place which is her own, and reads these extracts, burning them after reading them in the hope of their destruction. Through her confrontation of her diary entries, coupled with her musings on her day to day life, a palpable sense of a ‘before’ and ‘after’ are created, in which ‘before’ was childlike and suffused with love and ‘after’ was nothing more than dead routine, an empty shell-like existence without meaning or feeling.

Haushofer presents a stifling picture of this woman’s daily existence. Living without sympathy and hiding from a terrible event in her own history which neither she nor those around her can seem to confront. It is hard not to see this story as a metaphor for the annexation of Austria, the Anschluss, during the war, the sense of isolation and ongoing guilt. The sudden, unexpected deafness. the unpleasant gamekeeper and a strange man in the woods who shouts terrible things at her because she can’t hear them. Meanwhile her husband Hubert, her son Ferdinand about whom she seems to care intensely, are left in the clutches of her mother-in-law, a soulless woman who never approved of their marriage (representing Europe, perhaps?). Once you start to see this connection, it crops up everywhere in the little, seemingly unimportant, details of her musings. Like here, when she reflects upon her dark dreams:

“Ten years ago, for example, I dreamed I was in a wide open landscape like a park in which big glass tanks were arranged, full of water. In them say mermaids and mermen playing on harps and flutes. I couldn’t hear through the glass what they were playing but I knew it was the true music, not destined for the human ear. Their scaly tails shone like mother of pearl, and their long flowing hair floated on the surface of the water. They were beautiful. I stood and watched them in breathless rapture, but then suddenly I knew I wasn’t meant to be there with those creatures. It grew dark and a voice said: ‘They have abandoned us; it is the end of the world.’”

Whether or not The Loft is a metaphor for the war, it is an interesting meditation on the strangeness of human existence and the danger of hiding from a truth that seems to define us. At times the narrator can be frustrating, as her avoidance of the truth in her life seems measured and deliberate and it is hard to understand how she can want to live that way. Yet there is a sense that somehow this is the only way that she can live. As she explains: “But what are you to do when you aren’t dead but only dead-apparent? The obvious answer is just to reoccupy the place you left vacant, but this doesn’t really work either.”

Fortunately there remains a sense of redemption, a long slow and painful recovery that is taken in small, almost meaningless steps. And whilst the story is told in a seemingly pedestrian manner, and whilst there is as much time spent hiding from and avoiding the truth as uncovering it, this is a remarkably powerful work that could too easily, on superficial reading, be dismissed as a slow, domestic drama. But it is far more than this, and I find myself impressed (again) by Haushofer’s skill in weaving such an intense and difficult subject-matter into the story of a woman doing her domestic chores and drawing little pictures of birds trying not to seem lonely in a loft.

The Loft receives a drawn-out 9 out of 10 Biis. 

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Reflections on writing: mindfulness

I’ve been thinking about mindfulness a lot recently. Or rather I have been thinking a lot about how mindfulness is cropping up a lot recently. It seems to be a bit of a buzz phrase, which is a shame because I find there’s a lot of value in being mindful but its prevalence in the daily media seems to be turning it into a parody of itself. I am thinking, in particular, of an article I read about the ‘mindfulness of eating’ which was referencing a new App by Headspace who seem to be turning the world mindful one activity at a time. The idea behind mindful eating is centred on taking time to experience and appreciate your food. Instead of just guzzling it down, take a moment to appreciate the sight and feel of your food, savour the different tastes and textures, hold it on your tongue, chew slowly, smell as well as taste. There’s a lot of merit in this advice, in fact it brings to mind the approach in Japanese fiction (not just Murakami, though Murakami readers will recognise him here) in which the protagonist prepares a simple meal in an almost ritualistic, procession-like manner to the point where even those who would generally balk at the idea of pickled cauliflower are left itching to take a bite. So I’m on board here, yet still I can’t shift that shuddery feeling that comes over me every time I hear the term. 

Perhaps it is the term itself that I struggle with the most. It has a catch-phrasy tone to it. In the past I have dabbled, frequently, with meditation. I enjoy meditation, though it was not always so. I find it settling, peaceful. Perhaps it is because I am often so busy, often planning every spare moment of my day - starting this, scheduling that – that even just ten minutes of sitting and simply existing, without focus or intent, brings me back to the experience of Not just a doing machine (I feel like this often). When I read Ruth Ozeki’s marvellous A Tale for the Time Being I enjoyed reading about how old Jiko helped Nao to develop a habit of sitting zazen which is another word for meditation, though of a particular type as espoused by Zen Master Dōgen. Yet this term mindfulness seems somehow unfitting, and perhaps its wide ranging application (you can be ‘mindful’ in pretty much anything) is what discomforts me so greatly. I am sure it is irrational, but there it is.

So whilst I have titled this blog ‘mindfulness’ I think it’s more true to say that what I’m interested in here is present awareness or in more blunt Northern-Englandy terms ‘paying attention’.  Whether or not you indulge in meditation (and I’ll get onto that, bear with me) there is significant value as a writer in spending time in this activity of paying attention to what is happening right here and right now. I think as we grow older we spend a lot of time learning to phase out the ‘unnecessary’, those things which are repetitious or commonplace, those things that don’t contribute towards what we are trying to do, where we are trying to go or what we want to achieve. We lose the childish appreciation of the world, where each experience is seen as new and unique. It is called ‘growing up’ and yet it seems a terrible punishment for growing older. For a writer such obliviousness is a handicap; failure to observe, to feel, to experience even the seemingly ordinary in life separates us from the richness of the world. It is often in these hidden spaces, in the minutiae of detail, from which great literature is born. One quality which unites all the greatest writers is their ability to see and elucidate those things that other people overlook, adding to it, of course, their unique perspective and insight and hopefully some sharply written prose.

Being mindful is harder than you imagine, just try spending the next ten minutes paying attention to everything that happens inside and outside of you. It’s exhausting. It’s also especially difficult in a world which seems to be moving, through the aid of technology, to a more virtual life experience. Think about all those people you see walking through the streets on their way to work in the morning, chatting away on their mobiles or walking staring at the screens as they send a text message or read the latest news or Facebook updates. This sight is now commonplace, and those of us who eschew such technology (I despise mobile phones) have become adept at avoiding collision with such people whose bodies may be present but whose minds are clearly inhabiting some different plane entirely. I do not blame them. I don’t think people can be faulted for becoming entranced with these magical little boxes which they did not invent and never asked for and which allow you instant access a dizzying array of things you never imagined existed or that you wanted.  Yet I also think it is true that such technologies go a long way towards separating us from experiencing the world that we are in now; they engender a weirdly passive yet searching mentality, in which we go seeking the next thing to absorb or to react to: a tweet that enrages or a comment that demands a response. I know this to be true because I have experienced it; I am not beyond the allure of the internet, the way it instantaneously gratifies or outrages. I have spent many hours reading twitter feeds or internet articles, checking for e-mails or messages. Yet I also know it is dead activity, that to unearth my creative and creating self I need to be here and present and alert to what is happening.

I think this is perhaps why mindfulness has become such a thing recently, that people need gently reminding that they are more than just all-consuming beings, being fed information or experiences or goods at a distance. That it is easy to spend your entire life reaching out for something, when the really valuable experience is right here, in this moment, the one you are living. I recognise the irony in communicating this via an internet blog. In a way I’m saying the best thing you can do is stop reading and start feeling and experiencing.  In a moment, of course, when you’ve finished reading what I have to say. Pay attention.  

This is what mindfulness is about, and perhaps I have not explained entirely clearly why I think it is so important a tool if you’re setting out to be a writer, perhaps because I think, at its root, mindfulness is a valuable tool for life. But for a writer it is particularly valuable because it enables you to take time to empty yourself of all influences, forget the article that enraged you or the odd comment your mother left on your Facebook post, and let yourself become open to what is happening right now. It enables you to focus more closely on how you are feeling, unusual tensions in the body or perhaps a general sense of sadness or joy. It enables you to notice the little things: warmth, a soft breeze, an ache in your left shoulder (that’s me), the sounds of the air conditioning or heating running through the pipes in your building,  the regular ticking of your heart, the sensation of cloth on your knee, the way your body quivers unexpectedly when you sit cross-legged, the way the mind wanders, how it roams curiously seeking out experience, experience that, on the whole, you largely block out. All these things become present and clear and suddenly you start to see yourself forming from the blank space where your outward seeking – defensive mind would normally be. Subjects, reflections, meaning begin to form, not reactions but identity. Maybe your mind wanders to that argument you had with your partner that morning and you start to see what it was about what they did (or didn’t do) that enraged you, not the thing itself but the source of your own insecurity, your fear. And the great part about meditating, about mindfulness, is how it is not about dwelling on these things or judging, but about acknowledging their existence. That’s all. Translate that activity into story-writing and you have a path towards a great observational piece in which you don’t judge or steer your characters too heavily but instead allow them to unfold and create the story through their actions. Suddenly you have show not tell, that great and often shared piece of writerly advice. And those little details are the difference between writing that is superficial and a story that is authentic. Those little details are what makes stories worth reading.

I wouldn’t recommend that anyone tries mindfulness because it is cool or popular or the buzz phrase of the minute. It is more difficult and in some respects much too scary to attempt lightly. When I tried it with my daughter she found it very discomforting, and it has taken me many years of trying before coming to feel at peace when meditating and I don’t doubt there will be future occasions when no matter what I try I can’t settle to it. It is not predictable or easy. But if you’re interested in becoming a writer, it is a powerful way of revealing to you your own feelings, of being present and observant and receptive to what the world has to say which makes it a valuable tool and a worthwhile activity, even if only used occasionally. 

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before, but I like Helen Oyeyemi a lot. She’s one of those writers who is a ‘one to watch’, one who already produces really interesting work and who has even better work within her. You can see it springing from the page. But if you don’t believe me, believe Granta who highlighted Oyeyemi as one of their Best Young British Novelists in 2013 alongside some other more familiar names like Zadie Smith, Ned Beauman, Xiaolu Guo and another of my own ‘ones to watch’ Evie Wyld. One other thing I might not have mentioned about Oyeyemi is how super-clever she is, and how somehow I get the feeling I’m only scratching the bare surface of her work. Setting my own lack of cleverness aside, the one thing that unites Oyeyemi’s work is how enjoyable it is, and Boy Snow Bird is no different in that respect. And perhaps I have a slight vested interest in Oyeyemi doing really well as my edition of Boy Snow Bird is a signed first, but that's by the by. The best part is how great she is. 

In Boy Snow Bird Oyeyemi plays with fairy tales, turning them on their heads and inside out until you’re not sure exactly what role everyone is playing. The story starts with Boy, a young New Yorker, blonde and beautiful, who lives with her ratcatcher father who now and again beats her up, tortures her and abuses her for no apparent reason whatsoever. Or perhaps there is a reason? Boy herself never seems to be quite sure, but one thing she is sure of is her odd relationship with mirrors. As she describes:

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton. I felt the reflection at my shoulder like a touch. I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps.”

Eventually Boy runs away from home, taking a bus as far as her money will take her and arriving at the town of Flax Hill, a town whose air took on a strong flavour of palinka, in which everyone is a specialist in something, populated by woodcutters and jewellers and a little girl called Snow whose father, Arturo, takes a particular interest in Boy. You can see where this is going, right?

Or can you? Oyeyemi’s skill is in playing with your expectations, taking a familiar story and turning it into something new and different, a fairy tale for a modern, interlinked and globalised world. Using the familiar as a prop to bring a different spin on the issue of race, on the issue of living in a multicultural environment in which, to a large extent, the embodiment of beauty is one with dark hair and blue eyes and pale, pale skin. Where then does Bird, dark skinned daughter to Arturo and Boy fit in? And why can’t she always see herself in mirrors? It is all very puzzling, and yet a very entertaining and rewarding read.

Helen Oyeyemi writes charmingly. Her characters are vivacious, wisecracking, innovative, they leap off the page, and yet if I was going to make any criticism of Oyeyemi’s writing, bizarrely this is where it would be. As I was reading, entertained, the pages flowing easily, I realised that there was something a little samey about the main characters: Boy, Snow and Bird. This was particularly noticeable in part 2 which includes an exchange of letters between Snow and Bird, estranged sisters, which in their tone and expression seem remarkably similar. This may be one of those clever points that I, in my ignorance, have failed to appreciate, but it represented a small stain in an otherwise flawlessly entertaining reading experience. Yet somehow I wonder, as all three experience problems with mirrors are they somehow representations of three different aspects of the same woman? Maybe it is something deeper I’m missing here, and the joy in Oyeyemi’s storytelling is how she keeps you guessing and guessing.

If you haven’t yet encountered Helen Oyeyemi, I would encourage you to give her a try. Boy Snow Bird is a wonderful, entertaining read, the kind that you “eat with your eyes” as one of Oyeyemi’s characters sagely observes. It is doubtless that Oyeyemi has a talent, that she is an innovative and vibrant writer with a skill for a snappy turn of phrase and turning stories, and expectations, on their head. There is better yet to come from her, I am convinced of that, and I look forward to discovering what magical journey she will take us on next.

Boy Snow Bird receives a magical 9 out of 10 Bii’s.