Sunday, 4 August 2019

What it meant to be a girl

The Seraphim Room The Seraphim Room by Edith Olivier is a story driven by the character of Mr Chilvester, twice widowed, and living with his two daughters: the invalid Lilian, and the teenage Emily. The lease on their home passes through the male line, and Mr Chilvester, knowing that "the name of the family would die with him," transfers all his passion into his house.

The story is set shortly after 1928 and the passing of the "Flappers' Vote." It relates what happens when the intransigence of Mr Chilvester comes up against Emily's romantic aspirations and the youthful exuberance of the young architect, Christopher Honeythorne. Chilvester is an old-fashioned Victorian patriarch, whereas Honeythorne shows all the spirit and modernism of the Roaring Twenties. Initially Chilvester appears quite comical, but when his authority is threatened the darkness of his character is revealed.

Edith Olivier's writing style is rather old-fashioned and reflects the class and period of the subject matter. The characters' actions may seem far-fetched, but there are still plenty of parents alive today whose religion or upbringing have taught them, like Chilvester, to think that "Lillian, being only a girl, meant nothing."

Sunday, 28 July 2019

David or Donny?

Kill the Boy Band First there was "Sinatramania", then there was Elvis, and in the 60s it was The Beatles. When I was ten years old, I passionately defended David Cassidy and vilified Donny Osmond. The Bay City Rollers, Bros, Take That; Goldy Moldavsky's book, Kill the Boy Band, will speak to anyone who has had a teenage crush on an inaccessible, world-famous popstar.

The story begins in a hotel suite, where Rupert P., member of The Ruperts, is tied to a chair with a pair of tights. Four Strepurs, as fans of the band call themselves, are discussing what to do, and one of them, a self-confessed liar who is in therapy, narrates the story.

Labeled as a YA book, it's a very easy read, written in a casual and chatty style, with a lot of humour. There's a dark side too, raising questions about obsession, friendship and mental health. I found myself, early on, thinking if I would be chuckling quite so much if it were a bunch of teenage lads who had captured a female pop star.

You have to suspend disbelief at a couple of plot points, but overall it's a fast-moving, entertaining who-dunnit mystery.

As for David or Donny, you be the judge:



Friday, 26 July 2019

My return caused only confusion and uneasiness

Travels with Charley: In Search of America Towards the end of his life, John Steinbeck took a road trip across America, "determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land." He converts a truck into a mobile home he calls Rocinante, and sets off with only his aged French poodle, Charley, for company.

Steinbeck's relationship with Charley forms the major part of the book's charm. The author's love for his dog shines through, and Charley's scenes are written with a great deal of humour.

What Steinbeck finds along the way are "the mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use," and he muses on "the wild and reckless exuberance of our production." He asserts that "a beard is the one thing a woman cannot do better than a man, or if she can her success is assured only in a circus," and questions what drives "millions of armed American males to forests and hills every autumn,", thinking that "somehow the hunting process has to do with masculinity, but I don't quite know how."

The later parts of the book were the most engaging. Steinbeck visits his native Salinas, California, where his emigrant status has made him a stranger:
the "town had grown and changed and my friend along with it. Now returning, as changed to my friend as my town was to me, I distorted his picture, muddied his memory. When I went away I had died, and so became fixed and unchangeable. My return caused only confusion and uneasiness. Although they could not say it, my old friends wanted me gone so that I could take my proper place in the pattern of remembrance -- and I wanted to go for the same reason."


Steinbeck's road then leads through Texas, his wife's state, and New Orleans, where Ruby Bridges was making history as the first African-American child to attend an all-white elementary school. After this, he made his way back to New York, tired of traveling, glad to return home.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Nothing to lose, everything to walk for

The Salt Path What would you do if you lost your home and your source of income, then your partner of 30 years was diagnosed with an incurable, degenerative disease? In Raynor Winn's case, she decided to walk the South West Coast Path to give her and husband Moth a couple of months to consider their options.

The couple survived on benefits income of 48 GBP a week, living in a tent, eating packet-noodles. In spite of the hardship, "a wet sleeping bag in a wet tent on a windy headland," Winn says "I was grateful that I wasn't on a piece of cardboard behind the bins in a back alley."

The Salt Path shows how Raynor and Moth, both in their 50s, survive the complete breakdown of the life they had built for themselves. But it is more than that. It holds a mirror to how society treats homeless people: the unwarranted fear and vindictiveness of some and the unstinting generosity of others.

Ray Winn talks frankly about what the knowledge of being homeless does to a person, and how it can affect relationships with friends and family. The couple were "intensely grateful" to one friend who offered them free accommodation in a shed in return for converting it into a holiday rental. However the arrangement leaves Winn "hollow inside," where "days had no meaning, just a repetition of toil with no purpose for us, other than to keep warm and dry. I was alone among friends. Homelessness had taught me that however much people think they want to help you, when you enter their home, you quickly become a cuckoo in their nest, a guest that outstays their welcome. Or their usefulness."

It was interesting to have read this journey immediately after finishing Josie Dew's Slow Coast Home. Josie, a successful writer with her own business, chooses to cycle around England, wild camping when necessary, and occasionally making free use of camp sites when the pitch fees are over-priced. Ray and Moth do exactly the same. Does one have the same opinion of Josie and Ray? They both pitch their tents "illegally", but are we more accepting of one than the other? This was what I really liked about the book, that it challenges one's own assumptions about those who are on the street: they might be homeless, might be refugees from poverty or conflict, down on their luck, travellers searching for a better life.

In conclusion, The Salt Path is an uplifting book about self-determination, fortitude, hope and love. Here's how Ray describes it:
"We could have stopped, but we had nothing to lose and everything to walk for. We were free here, battered by the elements, hungry, tired, cold, but free. Free to walk on or not, to stop or not. Not camping out with friends or family, being a burden, becoming an irritation, wearing friendship away to just tolerance. Here we were still in control of our life, of our own outcomes, our own destiny. The water ran from our rucksacks as we put them on our back. We chose to walk and seized the freedom that came with that choice."


Sunday, 7 July 2019

The perfect date to start a bike ride

Slow Coast Home Reading Josie Dew's Slow Coast Home is very much like cycling: plenty of ups and downs, and a few diversions.

Josie says she "never planned to cycle around the coast of the British Isles. It just happened that way," which is a very pithy description of the book. I didn't really believe she had done no planning, but when 40% of the way in she had only got as far as Plymouth, a mere 185 miles from home, it seemed more likely that she had been telling the truth.

Some of the experiences were uplifting, such as a ride over Exmoor when the weather was "cruel and painful and penetratingly cold, but it all combined to add to the acute intensity and elation of the ride." Others were appalling, as when she relates that one of four lads in a car "leant out of a back window and gobbed me full in the face." Josie's humour is sometimes ponderous, and sometimes wonderfully mischievous with puns: after being forced to perform certain functions SAS-style in her tent, she professed herself, "light in spirit, and even lighter in buttock, with that rewarding feeling of a job well done." My favourite bit was Chapter 16, in which she discusses the problems of travelling with a bike on a train, something which I used to do a lot around about when Josie's first book, The Wind in My Wheels, was published.

Much as I admire Josie, I found the book a frustrating read. Up to half way through there had been so many detours that I really didn't think it was going anywhere. She went out of her way to holiday with friends, was called back home to publicise her books and cater for parties, and was twice forced to abandon the adventure due to health problems. That's not counting the number of stops to buy bananas and eat bananas. I just wanted her to get on with the journey.

One final note: I must call Josie out on her claim that "there was nothing special" about the day she sets out from home, Wednesday, 25th April. To give her the benefit of the doubt, I have never read anything that mentions what her favourite movies are, so she's probably not aware that April 25th, according to Miss Rhode Island, is the perfect date.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Expertise with agricultural implements

Mort (Discworld, #4, Death, #1) I really wanted to like Terry Pratchett's Discworld fantasy series, which many friends have raved about. A brief survey identified Mort as "the best", and since it's only the fourth in the series, I didn't think it would be difficult to get to grips with the peculiarities of Pratchett's imaginary world.

When we first meet the eponymous character, he's "tall, red-haired and freckled with the sort of body that seems to be only marginally under its owner's control; it appeared to have been built out of knees." Nonetheless, the lad is taken on as an apprentice by Death. It's a sort coming-of-age story for Mort, but the book's star character is really Death.

The premise was interesting: what happens if someone interferes with fate in a world where the moment and method of one's death is fixed. And up to about half way through, I was enjoying it, but it just sort of tailed off and became tedious. Apart from Death, in the second half of the book I couldn't bring myself to care about the characters, Mort included.

Pratchett's humour and descriptions kept me reading tho': "the sort of smile that lies on sandbanks waiting for incautious swimmers", the flooding of the river "brought to the region prosperity, security and chronic arthritis", "porridge, which led a private life of its own in the depths of its saucepan and ate spoons", "shoulders hunched like vulture's wings", and Death's consideration of his own particular skill, "a certain amount of expertise with agricultural implements."

But it wasn't enough to raise my curiosity for exploring Discworld further.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Water, shelter, clothes and olive oil: the primitive necessities of life

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 Lionel Shriver's The Mandibles: a family, 2029-2047 mostly takes place in the near future of 2029, when the collapse of the US economy leads to the collapse of society. Set primarily in the suburbs of New York, it relates how four generations of one family, many of whom think of "the primitive necessities of life as fresh water, shelter, clothing, and extra-virgin olive oil", deal with sudden and utter destitution.

This was the premise that interested me, but it took at least a third of the book to get to it. Before that, there was lot of rather tedious dialogue, which was unfortunately necessary to explain the economics behind the plot. With such a large family and so many characters, it was occasionally confusing working out who was speaking.

Perhaps the most important characters are Nollie, the expat author who returns to live with her niece Florence, and Florence's son Willing. I liked the feisty septuagenarian Nollie, but preferred the teenage Willing, who quietly observed what was happening, and sensibly prepared for the future. I also felt a certain affinity with Florence, her frugality and humanity.

In addition to the theme of societal breakdown, Shriver had plenty to say about how the expectation of a tidy inheritance can skew familial relationships and lead to stupid actions. There's plenty of dark humour too, nothing laugh-out-loud, but when "real poverty is about doing what you have to do as opposed to what you want", you probably need to have a sense of humour to cope.

Overall, although I appreciated The Mandibles, I think that Lionel Shriver probably found a lot more enjoyment in the writing of it than I found in its reading.