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Reading Outside the Box

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I read this illuminating article by one of this year’s Booker Prize winning judges earlier this week and found it an inspiration and a challenge. What particularly struck me was:  ‘Haruki Murakami once said that if you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. What I found is that if you only read the kind of novel you have always read, you can only think the kind of things you usually think.‘ Both of these concepts are obvious, but the sort of obvious truths that are so obvious that you never actually stop to think about them. Afua Hirsch, the author of the article, says elsewhere in her piece that she only chooses books that reflect the world she knows and is comfortable experiencing. Anything that strikes outside of those boundaries doesn’t normally break through. I reflected on my reading habits once I reached the end of the article and came to the depressing reality that I rarely read anything that challenges my worldview too, because I deliberately avoid reading anything that might do so. This isn’t something I do with any other form of culture; I love watching films and documentaries that make me confront realities I normally shy away from, and I, as my poor colleagues at school know, am a massive fan of avant-garde theatre and am always pressuring them to teach the unusual plays I have discovered. However, with novels, I’ve been guilty of pulling up the drawbridge, and surrounding myself with my friends who make me feel secure for far too long. Apart from the occasional occupational necessity, it’s a solid diet of nineteenth and early twentieth century classic and middlebrow novels, with a side helping of contemporary, usually historical fiction. And while I love this diet, I don’t want to be someone who only ever gorges on the same limited selection of tastes. I want to be challenged to think in new ways, to be opened to alternative realities, to try new ways of expression.

Today I took my first step towards widening my comfort zone by reading Lanny, by Max Porter. I’ve wanted to try Porter for a while, but my understanding of his style of writing – all wavy lines and poetic structure, with fairy tale, almost magical realist elements woven in – had made me reluctant. I assumed I’d hate it, and think it was all style over substance. To my enormous surprise, I devoured it within a couple of hours, unable to put it down. This haunting, atmospheric tale of a home counties village and the ancient green man that lives at its heart, feeding off the lives of its contemporary inhabitants, should have been everything I roll my eyes at, but somehow, it managed to weave a spell over me. Lanny, a young boy who is ‘different’, has a deep connection with the natural world and senses the presence of the timeless green man. He sees and hears things others don’t, and causes tension between his parents, with his father completely failing to understand him. He goes to ‘Mad Pete’ – a local famous artist – for art lessons, and is enthralled by his stories about the lore of the village, but there are many who tut and whisper about what they feel is an inappropriate relationship between a ‘dodgy’ old man and a young boy.  One night, Lanny goes missing, and everyone points their fingers at Pete, but with the village swarming with police, it will ultimately only be the green man who can lead the way to Lanny.  Within this overarching narrative, the tensions amongst the villagers are explored, some of whom believe they have more ‘right’ to live there than others, their views largely revealed through the snatches of conversation the green man hears while he lies beneath the ground. Porter’s prose is poetic and beautiful, and his use of myth and folklore to shine a light into our present society and the growing tide of insular, prejudiced thinking that seeks to exclude rather than welcome those who are different, is incredibly thought provoking and powerful. I loved every word, and was thrilled to have my reading outside of my comfort zone so well rewarded.

So what is next? I have the Nobel Prize winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead to read, and then I want to try Edna O’Brien’s Girl, about the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram, and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. Any recommendations for books that you know I wouldn’t normally read would be gratefully received. I have to say that through buying Olga Tokarczuk’s book, I have discovered the beautiful uniform royal blue editions of contemporary, largely translated, novels by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and I shall certainly be mining their list for new authors to try.

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Atkinson, Atwood and Boyd

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Kate Atkinson has been my great discovery this year. Life After Life is an extraordinary, addictive, engrossing and unbearably moving portrayal of Ursula Todd’s life from birth to death, with the added complication that she has the ability to start again whenever her life ends up going down a path of destruction. I loved this book so much that I was desperate to read its sequel, which tells the story of her younger brother Teddy. I was delighted to find a lovely American hardback edition on a dollar stand outside a bookshop in Beacon, NY, this summer, and I started reading it as soon as I got home. I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I didn’t know if she would employ the same time altering effect, and was initially thrown off balance by Atkinson’s decision to launch her reader straight into Teddy’s dissatisfying life as an elderly widower, locked in battle with his nasty, ungrateful daughter Viola, and attempting to give his much loved grandchildren some sort of stability. We find out that Teddy did marry his childhood sweetheart Nancy, who lived next door to the Todd family as they were growing up, but she has long since died, as has Ursula, who, in this version of her life, never married and instead focused on having a career. I wanted to go back in time to the Todd children’s childhood, and I wanted to see Ursula again, and see Teddy’s version of their upbringing, so this book beginning in the present, with new characters I didn’t warm to – Viola really is abhorrent – was initially a bit of a disappointment, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to like the book at all. However, I stuck with it, and soon the Atkinson magic began to weave its spell. Teddy’s years as a fighter pilot in WWII – meticulously researched and brilliantly, movingly evoked – provide numerous series of tense, heart stopping chapters. His marriage to Nancy, his devastation at her death, and the complex nature of different ways of loving are explored with sensitivity and insight. Gradually Viola’s personality is peeled back and the devastating blow she received as a child revealed, explaining so much about her behaviour that I forgave her everything. I truly lived alongside these characters and felt utterly bereft when I finished reading. Atkinson is fantastic at showing how we are all made up of layer after layer of experiences, some of which strengthen, some of which destroy, and how the decisions we make – and don’t make – form not only our own lives, but have untold effects on those whose lives intersect with ours. No man is an island, after all, and Teddy’s life and the lives of those he loves, explore this concept in such an imaginatively profound way. Atkinson’s ability to draw people who feel so completely real is so impressive and I now want to read everything she has ever written. I can’t recommend Life After Life and A God in Ruins enough, if you’ve not yet tried them – they’re both quite long, but so addictive that you can blaze your way through them in no time at all. Perfect under-a-blanket sofa reading now we’re officially in Autumn!

Any Human Heart by William Boyd has been on my should-read list for a long time, and after a breathless recommendation from a colleague, I thought it would be the perfect antitode for my loss of Teddy Todd. It tells the story – from childhood to death – of Logan Mountstuart – who is born at the turn of the century and will live through all of the tumultuous events the twentieth century will bring, often rubbing his shoulders alongside the great and good of the literary and artistic world in the process. It is told in the form of his diaries, which begin when he is at boarding school in England, though a later addition by Logan to contextualise his memoirs allows us to see his early childhood in the colourful, sun drenched world of Montevideo, Uruguay, where his English father worked in the meat canning industry and met his beautiful Uruguayan mother. This exotic world is replaced by the grim Victorian terraces of Birmingham when his family moves back to England, and the rough and tumble intense world of a British boarding school is in sharp contrast to his previous life. However, it is here that he makes two lifelong friends, who will go on to help shape the course of his adult life. Oxford follows school, and then Logan becomes a writer, with initial huge success. He has a failed early marriage to an aristocrat, becomes an intelligence agent during WWII, moves around the world, falls in love and suffers many unbearable losses, experiences the devastating frustration of dreams and ambitions unrealised, and all of this amidst the turbulent background of a century that offered numerous opportunities and startling changes, taking him unimaginably far from the life his parents had pictured for him at his birth. Boyd is a wonderful writer, and in Logan he creates a fascinating, sympathetic and remarkably realistic character who the reader can’t help but fall in love with. My heart broke for him several times, and I was almost inconsolable at the end – so much so I had to lie down for a while once I’d finished! Boyd’s use of Logan’s story to meditate on the utter unexpectedness and unpredictability of life, on the shameful treatment of the elderly, of the importance of being willing to take chances and not allowing fear and pain to dictate our lives, is illuminating and thought provoking and so powerfully emotive. I felt changed by the time I closed the pages, and I don’t think anyone could ever ask more of a work of art than that. You must read it.

Finally, I was looking forward to reading the new Margaret Atwood with breathless anticipation, and when it came out last week, I bought it immediately and started reading. I remember so well the powerful effect The Handmaid’s Tale had on me as a teenager and I was so intrigued to see how Atwood’s always incisive, measured prose and psychologically complex characterisation would develop the story of the world she created so brilliantly back in 1985. After having finished it yesterday, however, all I have to say is how utterly disappointed I am. Margaret Atwood is a genius – fact – and how on earth she managed to produce such a second rate, amateurishly written and simplistic novel is beyond me. It honestly reads like a piece of fan fiction. There is barely anything in here that reads like Atwood at all – apart from there being flashes in the chapters featuring Aunt Lydia – and the two new characters are both like something from a trashy YA novel. I really wish Atwood hadn’t bowed to the pressure to produce a sequel; there was never any need for one as The Handmaid’s Tale is so complete in itself. This fact tells in the aimlessness of this sequel, the point of which I am at a loss to understand. The plot is unrealistic, plodding and painfully obvious, the prose is utterly lacking in any grace or style, and ultimately it is a book that has absolutely nothing to say that Atwood hasn’t already said a thousand times more eloquently elsewhere. The throbbing intellectual poetic passion of her other novels is nowhere in evidence here; largely, I suspect, because she didn’t really have any reason or desire to write this beyond wanting to please fans who were desperate for more. It’s such a shame – I never thought Atwood would disappoint. I feel like the greatest of my literary gods has finally become mortal.

Sanditon by Jane Austen

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Reading unpublished and unfinished works by an author always makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, as if I’ve been rummaging around amidst their private correspondence or prised open their locked diary. If they hadn’t wanted to finish it, didn’t think it was good enough to be published, and didn’t put it out there in the world to be read, is it right for us to go against their wishes and introduce it into the public domain? I felt so uncomfortable about the troubling circumstances of Go Tell a Watchman‘s publication a couple of years ago that I couldn’t read it, despite my curiosity. Therefore, though I love Jane Austen and would be perfectly happy to only read her writing for the rest of my life, I have never delved into her fragments or juvenilia. However, the advertising of the new BBC adaptation of Sanditon piqued my interest, and then Oxford University Press sent me a copy to review, so, rather guiltily, I allowed my curiosity to overcome my morals and read the remaining fragments of what would have been, if she had survived and decided to continue with it, Jane Austen’s seventh novel.

First and foremost it must be understood that it truly is a fragment; a mere seventy or so pages, made up of twelve short chapters. Plenty of characters are introduced, but very little plot happens, though much is hinted at, and a seasoned Austenite could hazard a guess at the plans she had for her characters, all of whom possess comfortably familiar traits. This is what makes Sanditon a very interesting reading experience, for the ending is abrupt, on the cusp of the arrival of a new character who, if Austen was planning on staying true to form, would undoubtedly have thrown the lives of the inhabitants of Sanditon into some disarray. What would this story have become? What would Austen have wanted to tell us through the world she only begins to create? And why did she decide – ill health aside – that Sanditon wasn’t worth continuing? We can make educated guesses, but ultimately this is a kernel of literary mystery, an uncut diamond, that promised a shift in Austen’s way of thinking of the world, with its slightly more acerbic tone and refreshingly novel setting, but a way of thinking that she clearly felt unable to bring to fruition.

Kathryn Sutherland’s always fascinating thoughts in the introduction to OUP’s edition of Sanditon are well worth reading to give some context and fuel your own theories of what Sanditon adds to our understanding of Austen’s evolution as a writer towards the end of her life, as well as what the fully-fleshed novel might have become. She raises the very valid point that this is Austen’s only novel written after the Napoleonic wars, a conflict that overshadowed almost her entire adult life. As such, the world she was writing Sanditon in was one newly at peace, and one poised for change. The choice to set the novel in a seaside resort that is being constructed for a new age of leisure tourism exemplifies this perfectly. Mr and Mrs Parker want to capitalise on the new craze for seaside bathing by developing Mr Parker’s family land in the small, nondescript seaside village of Sanditon, with the help of the twice-widowed and very wealthy Lady Denham, doyenne of Sanditon society. This allows Austen to dwell on one of her favourite topics – hypochondria – with much caustic wit – but also to widen her social lens as she brings a disparate group of people, including a mixed race heiress – to Sanditon to enjoy the waters and brisk sea air. The narrative focus of the novel appears to be Charlotte, a young family friend who is taken to Sanditon by the Parkers, but she is not fully fleshed, and feels rather wraith-like compared to the more robust characterisation of Mr Parker and his wonderfully hypochondriac siblings. I wondered whether her difficulties with bringing Charlotte to life had contributed to Austen’s lack of enthusiasm for finishing Sanditon, or whether perhaps, outside of the close village or house-based communities of her other novels, Austen felt – excuse the pun – rather at sea with what to do with a more transient community of holidaymakers.

Austen is known for depicting the seaside as a place of danger, disaster and loose morals – think of Lyme Regis and poor Louisa, of Wickham seducing Georgiana Darcy in Ramsgate and then Lydia in Brighton, of Mr Woodhouse’s fear of Isabella and her children going to the sea, of the dingy Portsmouth home of Fanny Price – and so her decision to set an entire novel at the seaside, amidst a resort set up by two rather unlikeable speculators – is fascinating and intriguing on many levels. In the brave new world of post-war England, in a world where everyone was away from home and looking for pleasure, what shenanigans would Austen have dreamt up, and what would this have told us of her vision of early nineteenth century society? How sad I am that we will never know. Despite my reservations regarding reading deliberately unpublished work, I am so glad I have read this, for it has given me much to reflect on and added a richness to my reading of her completed novels. In Sanditon, though but a few pages, we see an author entering into a new phase of thinking about, experiencing and expressing her rapidly changing world, and even though we can only speculate as to how she would have finished this tale, that only adds to the pleasure of the reading experience. Sadly I have heard nothing but bad things of the TV adaptation, which is essentially a work of Andrew Davies’ imagination, considering the limited textual material he had to go on. I might give it a go this weekend, though – with the growing nip in the air here in beautifully autumnal London, I can’t resist a period drama on a Sunday night, even if it does turn out to be terrible!

Summer Holidays

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One of the greatest perks of being a teacher is the blissful unfurling of weeks and weeks of freedom ahead when school ends for the summer. Time to potter, to read, to do absolutely nothing for whole afternoons at a time, while the heady, hot, flower-scented days of July slip into the more docile, drooping August, when the evenings start to darken and cool, and everything begins to look spent, leaves already crisping at the edges and the sunlight becoming brassy, the sky more washed-out, a dusty exhaustion settling as autumn beckons.

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Obviously I haven’t been doing absolutely nothing: anyone who would think such a thing clearly doesn’t know me at all! As soon as school broke up back at the beginning of July, I jumped straight in the car down to Devon for a week, which was almost unbearably wonderful – cornflower blue skies, blazing sunshine, fields full of wildflowers, butter-yellow beaches, charming villages chock-full of picture-postcard houses and colourful cottage gardens, miles and miles of blowsy clifftop walks fuelled with fish and chips and ice cream and sweets…just like being a child again. Marvellous! This was followed by almost three weeks in America, where I went to stay with wonderful old friends and had a brilliant time.

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It had been five or so years since I had been to Washington D.C., where my dear university friend Emily lives. I love D.C. – it’s a vibrant and diverse and culturally rich city that’s also quiet, peaceful and incredibly green. I love its huge stretches of waterfront, streets of gorgeous, colourful nineteenth century houses, distinctive neighbourhoods and historical significance. It was such a joy to be back there after so long, and I was treated like a queen by Emily and her lovely husband Dan. On my first day they drove me out to Annapolis, which I found absolutely charming, and we did a little antiquing, before having lunch in Baltimore. Over the next few days I enjoyed revisiting many of the Smithsonian museums, the American Art museum being my favourite – I particularly enjoyed the exhibition of David Levinthal‘s work, who takes photographs, often mock-ups of historic events, using plastic figurines to encourage debates around reality and fiction – really intriguing and thought-provoking stuff. I climbed up to see Abraham Lincoln in his giant chair, went book shopping in Capitol Hill, saw Renoir’s famous Luncheon at the Boating Party at the wonderful Phillips Collection, revisited beautiful Hillwood and marvelled once again at the Russian treasures, and had backstage tours of both the Library of Congress and the library of the Museum of Natural History, both arranged for me by Emily, who is a Very Important Person at the American Library Association. On my last night Dan took us out in his camper van to have a barbeque on the banks of the Potomac River – it was so magical to watch the sunset over the water and to relax in the company of such good – and sadly such distant! – friends.

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After D.C. came the obligatory pilgrimage back to New York, where both everything and nothing is always changing. I stayed with my dear friends Katherine and Winston, who are troupers at putting up with me forever sleeping on their living room floor, and I buzzed around the city packing in my favourite places – the Strand, the Met, the Highline – the area around which keeps changing so much that even despite having visited only last year, it’s already completely different in places – Central Park, Brooklyn – as well as discovering some new ones, such as the Whitney Museum down in the West Village, which I found absolutely fantastic, with a brilliant collection of Hoppers. I also went upstate, to Beacon, which is such a charming little town in the Catskills, where I visited a quilting exhibition in their amazing nineteenth century library, had a lovely lunch by a waterfall, and really enjoyed looking at some interesting modern art installations in an old Nabisco biscuit factory at Dia:Beacon. Katherine and Winston were consummate hosts, taking me out for lovely dinners in Brooklyn and cheerfully accompanying me to get icecream at Ample Hills more times than I can count. It was wonderful to spend time with such treasured friends in cities that I love, but I was also delighted to come back to a much cooler London, where many exhibitions, plays, ballets and concerts are waiting to be seen and a pile of books are waiting to be read before I go back to school…oh, if only the summer could last forever!

Discovering Tove Jansson

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Simon has been telling me for years how wonderful Tove Jansson’s writing is, but having only heard of her through the Moomin cartoons, I couldn’t really imagine her in the context of being a writer for adults, and so didn’t bother finding out more. However, a few weeks ago, I was tasked with starting to put together a curriculum for the International Baccaleureate English Literature course at school next year, and with a huge part of the course being a requirement to study literature in translation, I was stumped. Beyond the major Russian novelists, I’ve never really been into reading much fiction in translation, largely because I never feel like I’m actually reading the real thing. Having to find four books in translation to teach therefore presented quite the challenge. That’s when I remembered Simon’s love of Jansson’s The Summer Book, and as luck would have it, found it in a charity shop the very day I decided to go and buy some books in translation to inspire me. Moomins firmly in mind, I had no idea what to expect from Jansson’s writing, and was surprised to find myself instantly enchanted.

The Summer Book is a series of vignettes of life on a tiny Finnish island (so tiny it only takes 4 minutes to walk around the whole thing!), where a girl, Sophia, goes every summer with her grandmother and father. The narrative isn’t linear, and the vignettes exist out of any real sense of time; the reader is invited into glimpses of various summers over a number of years, and time ceases to matter, much like it does during the long, light Finnish summers where each day slips softly into the next, with little to differentiate one from the other. This slightly dream-like structure allows the anchor of the novel to be the characters, who remain consistent; the relationship between the curious, demanding and endearing Sophia and her creative, playful and yet increasingly vulnerable grandmother, is beautifully and often hilariously drawn. Sophia’s brutal honesty and frustrated questioning are brilliant depictions of the unselfconscious selfishness of childhood, and the gradual narrowing of the grandmother’s focus to the island and the minutiae of its natural world as she feels herself starting to slip away from life is movingly and powerfully drawn. Sophia and Grandmother, at opposite ends of the poles of life, are brought together every summer by the island, and their lives intertwine as they explore its ever changing environment together. There is always something to be discovered, a new custom to understand, a a new friend to be made, a solution to be found to a problem. From these moments, Jansson creates pockets of pure delight, transporting the reader to this tiny world where life both stands still and yet is charged with incident. I was utterly charmed by its magic.

So charmed was I, that I immediately set off to Foyles to buy this biography, that has also been translated into English, and is absolutely fascinating. I had no idea Jansson was such an accomplished artist, and had started her career as a decorative painter before the Moomins took over her life unexpectedly. She had a fascinating life, filled with adventure and intrigue, and she challenged conventions and forged her own path at a time when to do so was truly revolutionary, and took true courage. Born in Finland to a Swedish speaking family (hence why Jansson wrote in Swedish, and not Finnish), Jansson’s parents were both prominent artists and so she was drawing from a very young age. Encouraged in her artistic endeavours, she studied at the major Scandinavian art schools and worked as a painter, particularly on large decorative murals, many of which can still be seen in Helsinki, as well as portraits and landscapes, many of which are reproduced in the book and are a delight to behold. The war years were incredibly difficult for her, as were her twenties in general, with several doomed love affairs causing her a great deal of emotional anguish. The discovery of her love for women in her thirties freed her emotionally and creatively, and from this point onwards came the work that would make her name, though she would grow to hate the way the Moomin books and comics took over everything else, leading to her retreat to the island home she writes about so beautifully in The Summer Book. This novel was, according to her biographer, a response to the grief she felt in the aftermath of her beloved mother’s death, the grandmother in the book being her mother, and the little girl her niece. Understanding more about Jansson’s life and influences was absolutely fascinating, and unlocked so much more meaning for me in The Summer Book. She was such a talented, interesting, vibrant woman, and I already can’t wait to read more of her adult work. If you’ve never tried Jansson’s adult writing, I can’t recommend The Summer Book highly enough, and it’s perfect for a lazy summer afternoon’s reading!