A blog for everything bookish

Sunday 29 March 2015

Reflections on reading Virginia Woolf

A few months ago I set out to read everything by Virginia Woolf. Over the months this task has morphed into reading all the fiction by Virginia Woolf, with her non-fiction – essays, letters – to follow on. Partly this change was because of my commitment to the #TBR20 initiative, which I didn’t want to be entirely populated by Virginia Woolf books; partly this was down the need to return all the Woolf books I’d borrowed to the library – for some reason they wouldn't let me hold onto them indefinitely. So in the end I managed to read all Woolf’s novels and, at some point later this year, I’ll start working my way through her non-fiction writing. I’m looking forward to her letters in particular.

So what did I learn from this? Was it a worthwhile exercise? Yes, I think it was. My early attempts at reading Woolf were fraught with conflict. I’d tried Mrs. Dalloway, I’d read Orlando. There was something about both of these books that I struggled to reconcile myself with, and in my wider reading of Woolf that hasn't changed. These books are not the exception; I found myself polarized by her catalogue: some books I loved, thought were wonderful; others I had to force myself through. Is Woolf a great writer? Undoubtedly. Some of her novels are astoundingly good, and even when she’s not on her ‘best’ form, she is still extraordinarily good. She has a sharp eye for character, I have encountered no other writer who has Woolf’s capability for skewering the essence of a person in a mere handful of words. She had an eye for ‘scenes’ and this eye pierces her work with some memorable short observations, like the little old blind woman in Jacob’s Room who, even now, I can see. She has a capacity for fun, as demonstrated in Night and Day; she is never sentimental or mawkish. She is a poet, her writing is vivid and memorable even if sometimes it descends into chaotic, feverishness that is hard to follow.

It would be hard to rank Woolf’s novels, I suspect that different people will have very different experiences of her work. I have heard from many people who love Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, but find her other works impenetrable. For me, the standout works were To the Lighthouse (which I think is her absolute best), Jacob’s Room and The Waves. Of these The Waves was hardest to follow, her most poetic and ‘difficult’ work, but I think if you can approach it without trying too hard to understand it, just let the prose wash over you like the waves on the shore, then the extraordinary beauty of it becomes more clear. Next for me would be Night and Day and then The Years. I have a great fondness for Night and Day, it is a personable and lovable book. Dalloway and Orlando are books with which I have a complicated relationship. I want to love them both, but I don’t. Maybe my views on those will change in the future, I think Dalloway in particular needs multiple readings to draw out its worth. The Voyage Out is a good introduction to Woolf for anyone who wants to start reading her without leaping into her more experimental works. That leaves the ones I didn’t like: Between the Acts and Flush. I struggled to find redeeming features in either of these books.

To the Lighthouse, though. That’s a book that I would be happy to read over and over. It is a magnetic read, beautifully written and absorbing. It is a true testament to Woolf’s ability as an artist that she could take such a seemingly insignificant event and draw every drop of quiet drama from it. It is a masterpiece that everyone who loves to read ought to read. To the Lighthouse is the book, in my opinion, that shows Woolf at her best and earns her a well-deserved place in the literary canon.

What I haven’t mentioned here is Woolf’s diary which is the book that propelled me on this journey through Woolf’s books. I have only read the abridged version, the version Leonard Woolf edited to show Virginia’s life as a writer, but would like to read the full unexpurgated versions one day. In her diaries we learn of Woolf’s writing journey, her tortures and triumphs and we also see something of the woman, her concerns and her desires. It makes for an enlightening read, and I would recommend this to everyone.

I am so glad I spent some time discovering the treasures in Virginia Woolf’s writings. It is not a journey I have finished, in fact I think it is a journey I am still at the beginning of. I still have to read her non-fiction works and I’d love to read her letters too. I suspect I will re-read a number of her works over the coming years: Jacob’s Room, The Waves, Dalloway, Night and Day and my beloved To the Lighthouse which I could read and read and read again. If you haven’t yet discovered this marvelous woman’s writing, please do. 

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Tracks by Robyn Davidson

Sometimes there are books you pick up and you know instantly that you’re going to love them. For me, Tracks was one of those books. It may have helped that I had already watched the movie, and it was this that had prompted me to decide to read the book anyway, but I’m not convinced that explains it entirely. Instead there is something about the cadence of the early paragraphs, the feeling of the words spinning me straight into the mind of this woman “There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns – small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track. I watched a pale dawn streak the cliffs Day-glo and realised this was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence – and lasted about ten seconds.”

Image result for tracks robyn davidsonTracks is the true story of how Robyn Davidson set out to cross the Australian desert accompanied only by camels. She arrived in Alice Springs, a town for which she expresses little affection, equipped only with an idea, a dog (Diggity) and an independent streak. Davidson had no money, no real knowledge of camels and no support network in the local vicinity. Consequently she spent much of her early time in Alice Springs being taken advantage of, working rubbishy jobs, not really getting anywhere, hating the misogyny and the nasty attitudes towards the indigent Aboriginal population.

A considerable part of the book describes how Davidson put off, by any means possible, actually starting out on this journey. For a start, she knew next to nothing about camels and had to learn from scratch. This resulted in an exploitative relationship with a local camel rancher called Kurt whose behaviour was manipulative and abusive. Eventually she exits this relationship, but does so without getting hold of the camels she needs. Later on when she does acquire her camels, the problems she faces continue to grow. The camels are frequently sick, one of her first camels has to be euthanized due to illness, and when they’re not sick they’re wandering off. This trend continues on her trek.

I enjoyed the honesty that Davidson conveys in this early part of the story. That she was torn between going and not going becomes apparent, and some of her behaviour suggests that not going is the preferred option. She recognises this in herself, in her uncompromising nature which will not allow her to borrow the money she needs to start the trek. Then she encounters Rick Smolen, a photographer for National Geographic who convinces her to allow the magazine to sponsor her trip. She agrees, but at a cost: Rick must photograph her along the way and she must allow the magazine to report on her journey. Thus she embarks on a love/hate relationship with both Rick and the magazine which crops up at regular intervals throughout the trip (pretty much whenever Rick appears to take photographs).

The trip itself is the real meat of the story, and Davidson is equally honest about this. A lot of the time she hates the journey, the endless walking, the pain, the camels disappearing, the heat, the sweating, the drab food. Yet there are moments of sheer transcendence, as she describes here:

“And as I walked through that country, I was becoming involved with it in a most intense and not yet fully conscious way. The motions and patterns and connections of things became apparent at a gut level. I didn’t just see the animal tracks, I knew them. I didn’t just see the bird, I knew it in relationship to its actions and effects. My environment began to teach me about itself without my full awareness of the process. It became an animate being of which I was a part[…] What was once a thing that merely existed became something that everything else acted upon and had a relationship with and vice versa. In picking up a rock I could not longer simply say, “this is a rock,” I could now say. “This is part of a net,” or closer, “This, which everything acts upon, acts.” When this way of thinking became ordinary for me, I too became lost in the net and the boundaries of myself stretched out for ever.”

This is not just a story about a journey, but also a story about a place and time. Whilst Davidson is a key character, so is the desert, so is Australia and so are the Aboriginal people who make their home in this seemingly barren land. Davidson reflects widely on the position of Aboriginal people in Australian society and the cultural identity of the people themselves. That she generated a high degree of respect and admiration for these oft put down people is heavily apparent throughout the book, and whilst drawing the line at a complete understanding the nature of Aboriginal links to the land become more apparent to Davidson as she traverses the desert. I always find talk of the Aboriginal beliefs soul-stirring and this was no different hear. Davidson shares with affection her time travelling with Eddie, an aged Aboriginal man who helped her across a difficult part of the desert. I think this part of the story was the most heartwarming for me.

She also discusses in some depth the misogyny inherent in Australian ‘outback’ culture, and the way in which being absent from it freed her from social conventions. I’m not sure Davidson set out to write a feminist book, but throughout her musings she is also unable to contain her absolute belief that women, people, can achieve anything they set their minds to. As she explains here:

“I was now a feminist symbol. I was now an object of ridicule for small-minded sexists, and I was a crazy, irresponsible adventurer (though not as crazy as I would have been had I failed). But worse than that, I was now a mythical being who had done something courageous and outside the possibilities that ordinary people could hope for. And that was the antithesis of what I wanted to share. That anyone could do anything. If I could bumble my way across a desert, then anyone could do anything. And that was true especially for women, who have used cowardice for so long to protect themselves that it has become a habit.

Image result for tracks robyn davidsonThe world is a dangerous place for little girls. Besides, little girls are more fragile, more delicate, more brittle than little boys. ‘Watch out, be careful, watch.’ ‘Don’t climb trees, don’t dirty your dress, don’t accept lifts from strange men. Listen, but don’t learn, you won’t need it.’ And so the snail’s antennae grow, watching for this, looking for that, the underneath of things. The threat. And so she wastes so much of her energy, seeking to break those circuits, to push up the millions of tiny thumbs that have tried to quelch energy and creativity and strength and self-confidence; that have so effectively caused her to build fences against possibility, daring; that have so effectively kept her imprisoned inside her notions of self-worthlessness.”

I have noticed a trend in my more recent reading, something I seem to seek out, to desire. It appears in this book in buckets, it was present in A Woman in the Polar Night, in Full Tilt, in Lost Paradise and A Book of Silence. It is this idea of transcending the limits of human social construct, of reaching a moment of pure blending with the world, of being present and at one and at peace. I crave it. I wish I knew why, but until I do I am willing to keep seeking and finding it in wonderful books like this. Tracks is quite different in character to the movie (for those who have seen it), it is more raw and brutal, it is more present, Davidson breathes hot dust and sand through the pages. She sees with honesty and frailty; she is human, she is alive and she is free.

Thursday 19 March 2015

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips

There are certain things that don’t happen in my reading activities very often: books which I read in a day and funny books. The Table of Less Valued Knights surprised me by being both of those. I picked it up on a whim on a visit to the library on a day I was crazed from book acquisition starvation towards the end of my TBR20, which I seem hell-bent on never allowing myself to finish. I still haven’t finished. It’s been three months now, I may never buy another book.

Anyway, ignoring my book-buying withdrawal symptoms, I was attracted to this Baileys Prize longlisted book because it is different from the books I ordinarily read. It’s not serious for a start (except when it is) and it’s set in King Arthur’s court making it fantasy/historical which is a genre I generally avoid like the plague. Yet what I found was a very fresh, very entertaining, very current story about the danger of appearances and the stupidity of putting people, and fiction, into stereotypical boxes.

Our stories follows Sir Humphrey du Val, one of King Arthur’s knights. Specifically a knight of the ‘Table of Less Valued Knights’. To explain:

Image result for the table of less valued knights“For there were two other tables in the Great Hall of Camelot, two tables less sung of by storytellers and balladeers, in fact barely mentioned at all. One was known as the Table of Errant Companions. Oval in shape, tucked in the shadowy space beneath the minstrels’ gallery, it housed those young upstarts who aspired to the Round Table, who busied themselves with minor quests and prayed for a precious chair in proximity to Arthur. The other table, to be found in the draughtiest corner furthest away from either of the fires, was rectangular, and had one leg shorter than the other so that it always had to be propped up with a folded napkin to stop it from rocking. It was home to the elderly, the infirm, the cowardly, the incompetent and the disgraced, and was called the Table of Lesser Valued Knights.”

It is Pentecost, and the Knights are waiting for the Pentecost quest to arrive. Sir Humphrey is bored, hungry and irritable. Less Valued Knights are not permitted to go on quests. When the Pentecost quest arrives, it is a strange man: Edwin, who claims to be King of Puddock though, as Humphrey observes “Puddock had a queen now. So this must be her husband. But surely that made him Prince Consort?” It is a theme which recurs often in the book. Edwin’s wife, the actual queen, has been kidnapped, and the Pentecost quest is therefore to discover her kidnappers and recover her. The quest falls to the knight which volunteers the fastest, which in this case falls to Sir Dorien Pendoggett, the Errant Companion who took Humphrey’s place at the table. Humphrey is not pleased.

As Humphrey is hanging around the hall later, sleepless and grouchy, a lady turns up. Lady Elaine, it seems, is a damsel in distress (not quite the typical kind) whose fiancĂ© had been kidnapped just as they were to ‘plight their troth’. Humphrey sees an opportunity here, suspecting that the Lady Elaine’s quest is, in fact, the ‘true’ Pentecostal quest given that a damsel in distress ‘trumps a king’ in quest hierarchy. In such circumstances, Humphrey should wake Arthur’s court and allow the true knights to compete for the honour of fulfilling Lady Elaine’s quest. However, Humphrey decides to cheat the rules and take the quest for himself. He wakes his half-giant squire, Conrad with whom he has a shared and complex history which includes the story of how Humphrey is demoted to the Lesser Value’ table, Jemima the elephant (Conrad’s ‘steed’) and together they set out to find the Lady Elaine’s missing  fiancĂ©.

If one thing is true about this story, it is that nothing is quite what it seems. The Lady Elaine is not a traditional damsel in distress, Sir Humphrey is not the traditional knight and Conrad not the traditional squire. Edwin, The King of Puddock is no king and his kidnapped wife, the Queen Martha, is not entirely his wife, entirely kidnapped or entirely female. Phillips spends much of the novel ever-so-slightly perverting the traditional roles in a traditional story of this type, with amusing side effects. In the process she also highlights the hazard of making judgement on appearances or convention and the differences in treatment between men and women – this particularly seen through Martha’s story, as described here:

“She hadn’t realised how different life was for me. They looked her straight in the eye when they spoke, asking her questions and listening to her answers, treating her with the easy, casual respect of equals. She liked it, but she was thrown by the expectation that she would have something to contribute to the conversation. The frustration that she had felt as a girl her entire life – that nobody believed her to be competent at anything – was replaced by the terror that her competence was now assumed. Either way, her actual abilities didn’t seem to come into it.”

This is an amusing, satirical novel which is also extremely entertaining to read. It addresses the question of gender bias and gender opportunity through humour and a slightly offbeat cast of characters who never quite act in the way you’d expect them to. Gender is not its only target: traditional power roles, the image of the ‘knight in shining armour’, marriage, sexuality, jealousy and appearance are all targets of Phillip’s satirical eye. And in the traditional, perhaps the only traditional sense here, way of a good satire it’s strikingly and uncomfortably accurate. I found The Table of Less Valued Knights a very engaging read that sneaks its message in with a joke, until you realise it isn’t really sneaky at all: it’s the carrot-eating elephant in the room – she’s called Jemima and she’s about to poop all over your nice, new shoes.  

Sunday 15 March 2015

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This book was a gift from a friend, and it’s been languishing on my shelves for some time (as books often are) waiting to be read. It’s exactly the kind of book I would like: non-fiction (because I am trying to read more non-fiction…and succeeding), written by a woman about a woman, sciency. All those things add up to a considerate gift. So why had it been sitting on my shelves for so long? The answer: it seemed like quite a daunting read. So when I signed up to the #TBR20 initiative over on Twitter, this seemed like the exact kind of book that should be on my list.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of one woman’s search to find the story of the life of another woman, a poor black woman who died in the 1950s from cervical cancer, whose cells have changed the face of modern medicine. The cells, known as HeLa, have allowed significant medical advancement to be made because they were the first cells that were successfully grown and kept alive outside the human body. As a student of biology Skloots learned of the HeLa cells and how important they’ve been in medical science – enabling development of a polio vaccine, cancer therapies, cloning and gene mapping – but discovered that little was known about the woman herself. So she set out to write this story which is at once a personal history - piecing together Henrietta Lacks from her medical records and the vague memories of friends and family, many of which have suffered as a result of the famous cells - as well as a potted history of cell culture, including both the development and ethics of this branch of medical science.

What follows is an incredibly engaging story. Skloots is open about her investigations, she manages to insert her search for Henrietta Lacks’s story into the book though it’s neither arrogant nor self-serving or intrusive. Instead we learn through Rebecca’s eyes how the Lacks family have been affected both by their personal loss – the loss of Henrietta as a mother, partner, cousin – as well as the impact of having Henrietta’s famous cells linked to their family. There is also the ethical impact: in the case of the medicine industry millions of dollars have been earned selling Henrietta’s cells, yet the Lacks family, including Henrietta’s children, are so poor they can’t even afford medical insurance. Henrietta’s cells have benefitted millions, enabled many people to become rich, yet not the Lacks family itself.

This leads, neatly, onto the question of medical ethics which is explored in some depth in the book. Skloot manages to sit very carefully on the fence neither judging for or against the medicine industry. On the one hand there is considerable benefit in allowing the medical profession to conduct research openly and freely, so the idea of allowing individuals a proprietary interest over their tissues and cells could inhibit medical progress. On the other hand, some appalling abuses have taken place in both the context of medical research programmes and the acquisition of samples from living patients. It raises some interesting questions about the nature of informed medical consent that still need to be answered today. I found myself horrified by stories of medical experimentation such injecting healthy and unhealthy patients with HeLa cells to see if they developed cancer, without telling them that there was a cancer risk (many injectees went on to develop tumours). In many cases these experiments were conducted on black people, and there’s a sense throughout the book that the black community were subjected to some terrible treatment simply on account of being black, including Henrietta’s deaf & dumb daughter Elsie who died shortly after Henrietta in an overcrowded and dirty asylum where she, too, had been experimented on. There’s also the question of whether allowing organisations to apply a proprietary right over things like genes is, in and of itself, a greater inhibiting factor. The idea that organisations must be allowed to make money or research will not happen is a silly one; history is peppered with examples of scientists undertaking research as a matter of following curiosity, or out of a personal interest (loss of a family member) or simply for the common good. Included in this is George Gey, the man whose lab took Henrietta’s cells and grew and grew them. Cells that he gave away, freely, enabling others to conduct research and make money whilst he remained always on the cusp of broke.

But this is a story about Henrietta, and Skloots manages, through careful piecing together, to construct the story of Henrietta Lacks. It is a name more of us ought to know, to understand how her contribution has led to significant medical advancement. Her story is not an untroubling one; her children have led difficult lives and are variously proud and fed up with the story of HeLa. Skloot doesn’t let us forget that this is a story about a woman, a family and a community, that at the heart of the HeLa story is a dead young woman who left behind a grieving family which have never quite recovered from her loss.

Was it a daunting read? No, it wasn’t. At times it was infuriating (arrogant researchers); at others it was touching, sad, uplifting. It was certainly enlightening, and definitely a worthwhile read. Many thanks to the considerate friend who saw this book and knew it was perfect for me.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

The thing about Joan Didion, and it’s impossible not to notice this within a relatively short time, is that there’s a certain rhythm to the way she writes, a tone, a musicality, which creates a floating, dream-like essence to her prose. This conceals the precision of her words, the sheer effort that has gone into crafting the perfect sentence. And make no mistake, these are perfect sentences. Sparse, effortless (seeming), raw. It is a phenomena that Didion comments on in the book, here:

“The above are notes I made in 1995 for a novel I published in 1996, The Last Thing He Wanted. I offer them as a representation of how comfortable I used to be when I wrote, how easily I did it, how little thought I gave to what I was saying until I had already said it. In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in an rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying. Many of the marks I set down on the page were no more than ‘xxx,’ or ‘xxxx,’ symbols that meant ‘copy tk,’ or ‘copy to come,’ but do notice: such symbols were arranged in specific groupings. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.”

The thing about this rhythm is that it really gets under your skin, to the point that it is easy to forget what you’re reading but instead simply allow yourself to drift along with the lovely rhythm of the words. Before you know it you’re thinking in this rhythm. It’s the kind of rhythm which, with a little creativity, could turn the description of the process of making perfect mashed potatoes into something profound, significant, into something worth reading. Which isn’t to say that what Didion writes isn’t worth reading.

Didion’s rhythm is famous as is her openness, the way in which she mines her personal history, her friends, her tragedies and presents them for the readers, what, entertainment? It isn’t the right word. Edification perhaps. In Blue Nights Didion explores the loss of her daughter, Quintana Roo, to some misfortune which is never quite made clear. Except that she died, that was made clear. It is a terribly sad story, and it is evident that nothing about the distance of the event, or reflecting on it, makes it any less raw. In her neat, stripped down to the bones prose, Didion dissects both Quintana Roo’s life, her own life, their family. She also discusses the impact of her own aging, the descent into frailty which was both physical and mental. It is surprising to find that Didion was seventy five when she wrote Blue Nights. If she has lost any mental acuity, it does not present in her writing. Instead what we see is insightful, honest and true.

About aging, Didion writes:

“Let me again try to talk to you directly.
On my last birthday, December 5, 2009, I became seventy-five years old.
Notice the odd construction there – I became seventy-five years old – do you hear the echo?
I became seventy-five. I became five?
After I became five I never ever dreamed about him?
Also notice – in notes called Blue Nights for a reason, notes called Blue Nights because at the time I began them I could think of little other than the inevitable approach of darker days – how long it took me to tell you that one salient fact, how long it took me to address the subject as it were. Aging and its evidence remain life’s most predictable events, yet they also remain matters we prefer to leave unmentioned, unexplored: I have watched tears flood the eyes of grown women, loved women, women of talent and accomplishment, for no reason other than that a small child in the room, more often than not an adored niece or nephew, has just described them as ‘wrinkly’, or asked how old they are. When we are asked this question we are always undone by its innocence, somehow shamed by the clear bell-like tones in which it is asked. What shames us is this: the answer we give is never innocent, The answer we give is unclear, evasive, even guilty.”

The prime focus of this book is Quintana and her death, the way in which her death affected Didion, the critical self-examinations that followed. Quintana was an adopted child, this was something she was aware of from an early age. Was it her adoption that lead, inevitably, to her death? Was it something in the way she was brought up, was the knowledge of her ‘abandonment’ too much? Was the strangeness, the ‘privilege’ which Didion is at odds to point out is not quite what it seems, the adultness of her childhood the cause? Didion asks all these questions, examines Quintana’s life which is also her life as a mother, but finds no answers. How does this link to Didion’s own sense of age and frailty? Simply that, as she approaches those blue nights, the nights that foreshadow the darkness, the only person her life should still matter to is already in the ground.

Blue Nights is a book about loss and grieving. It is a book about loss and grieving in which the issue of grief is skirted and the loss lying at the centre is walked around, pushed, poked, reflected upon but not resolved. There is a rawness of emotion there, self-criticism, a sense that Didion is conning herself and through the book is trying to correct that yet doesn’t quite achieve it. This is not a criticism, I should point out. Didion directs us to a more critical way of thinking through her own efforts, and it is here where the strength of the book lies. Here and in its magical rhythm that is so familiar it is like being lulled to sleep listening to your mother’s heartbeat. Except in this case, I think I was lulled awake. Gratefully so.