Wednesday, 29 May 2019

For the librarians

People of the Book How could I not enjoy Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book, when her dedication states "for the librarians"?

The story is about Hannah, an Australian book conservationist who has been asked to restore a treasured Hebrew codex (based on the real Sarajevo Haggadah). Brooks takes us back through time from 1996 to 1480, revealing a fictional creator of the haggadah in Seville and its various protectors on its journey through Tarragona, Venice, Vienna and Sarajevo. Interspersed with the backwards tale, is the story of Hannah's life, her research and relationships. Some reviewers have said they disliked Hannah, but I found her appealing, and enjoyed the strange relationship she had with her mother.

I bought the book because it's partly set in Tarragona and I had a trip planned in that part of Spain. Knowing very little of 15th century Spanish history, I found descriptions of the Spanish Inquisition methods gruesome and was shocked by the way in which the Jews were expelled. It certainly coloured my viewing of an exhibition of 15th century religious art whilst on holiday.

On the whole, the ending was too contrived for my taste, but I take issue with the many comments that compare the book with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, which I've also read. People of the Book is not at all like Dan Brown's thriller which, if memory serves me, was based on rather dodgy "history". Its "surprise" revelation was easily guessed if you'd read Holy Blood, Holy Grail The Secret History of Jesus, the Shocking Legacy of the Grail. In contrast, Brooks's story is anchored in the intriguing origin and survival of a real thing, based on proper research and benefiting from a foreign correspondent's journalistic knowledge. I also preferred Brooks's theme that, "to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox."


After visiting Valencia I made my way to Tarragona and visited the Maricel Museum in nearby Sitges. There was a dreadful dissonance between the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition and the loving message of Christianity and its gorgeous religious art.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Valencia holiday preparation

The Mayflower; A Tale of the Valencian Seashore Flor de Mayo (Mayflower) is the story of a family living in the late 19th century Valencian fishing community. It begins when Tona is widowed by the death at sea of her husband, "the most thrifty saver of all savers," "a fisherman in winter and a smuggler in summer." The resourceful Tona opens a tavern on the beach, using the upturned wreck of her husband's boat as her home and workplace. She raises her two fatherless sons alone, until she falls for Martinez, a handsome Andalusian and a cad.

The book relates what happens to Tona and her family, their fortunes, misfortunes and adventures.

Vicente Blasco Ibanez paints a vivid picture of the small fishing community where everyone knows everyone else's business. His description of the fish wives and their antics at the market are especially enjoyable, and he dramatically evokes the terrifying, destructive violence of storms at sea. The style is unsentimental and non-moralizing, and the English translation is fine, if a little old-fashioned.

Flor de Mayo is one of four Blasco Ibanez books that depict rural life around Valencia and it's a great read if you're planning a trip to that region of Spain. Although the story is set over a century ago, I'm looking forward to seeing many of the buildings, districts and towns mentioned in the text.


I had a great holiday in Valencia, taking in a celebration of the city football team's victory in the 2018-19 Copa del Rey and a exhibition of images by 19th century photographer Jean Laurent. His photos brought to life many of the scenes described in The Mayflower, including this one of the oxen that beached and launched the fishing boats.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

It's not about Mormonism

Educated "This story is not about Mormonism," states Tara Westover in the Introduction to her memoir, Educated. As such, you won't find much in the book that is critical of the author's fundamentalist upbringing. Plenty of bad things happen, often due to wilful negligence, but no blame is attributed.

So what is the story about? If it's not about how religious beliefs can twist logic, maybe it's about how toxic patriarchy within families prevents women from living their lives as they choose. But again, there's no criticism of this in the book. The fact that wives and daughters are in danger of being abused seems to raise no emotion. Who will look out for Tara's sister-in-law and her children? Does anyone care? The message seems to be that it's up to the woman to sort herself out, just as Tara did. It's no-one else's problem.

Educated then, is about just one woman's desire to learn, and the conflict that that desire produced, both within herself and her family. It's about taking individual responsibility for your life. All very inspiring, but for this reader, ultimately self-centred and unsatisfying.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Daphne du Maurier's Brexit vision

Rule Britannia (VMC Book 304) Emma awakes one morning to the sound of aircraft overhead, an American warship at anchor in the bay, and US Marines making their way through the fields. Following its exit from the Common Market (European Union), Britain, with high unemployment and close to bankruptcy, has formed a coalition with America.

So opens Rule Britannia, in a rural area on the coast of Cornwall, where Emma lives with her grandmother Mad and her six adopted boys. The arrival of the US Marines is intended to be a peaceful precursor to the establishment of the USUK coalition, but when a soldier shoots the local farmer's sheep dog, it sets off a series of events that transforms the situation into a military occupation.

What unfolds, is how Emma and Mad deal with the threat to their family and community. We follow the story from Emma's point of view, and although she appears to react to the situation very differently to her grandmother, we're told at the beginning of the book, "they were equal in power, she and Mad, they were identical faces on either side of a coin.".

Never having experienced life under occupation, I can't comment on Du Maurier's opinion that the "old mocked, the young threw sand and stones," and that "it was only the middle-aged and the up-and-coming who collaborated with the invaders." But it does seem likely that in the face of restrictions on liberty, one would need to remain positive and perhaps use humour to cope. Throughout the narrative, Du Maurier switches back and forth between the humorous actions of Mad and her boys and the invading forces' increasingly vicious, repressive treatment of the community. For example, there's a recurring joke involving the older boys teaching the 3-year-old Ben new words. They start with "shit," then move on to other four-letter words. It's not laugh-out-loud humour, but it serves to counterpoint the violence of military occupation.

I prefer Du Maurier's Don't Look Now and Other Stories, and of course Rebecca. But Rule Britannia's plot and subject matter can't really be compared to these. The writing style is a little old fashioned and consequently the characters feel as if they are rooted in upper class 1930s-1950s English society, which they are. But it's an easy read and left me musing over such questions as at what age should a child be held responsible for committing serious crimes, how the acquisition and loss of power changes people, and where one's loyalties should usefully be placed on the scale of family, community, nation, continent and world.