Saturday, 23 May 2020

Book Review. All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve

Essentially a love story, Nicholas becomes besotted with Etna and determines to marry her. He cannot understand her initial reluctance, but his persistence pays off. However, Etna remains somewhat distant and unemotional. It is not until the end of the novel that the reasons for her unhappiness unravel.

Set in New Hampshire in the late 1800s, the description of the characters and their small town life is realistic and enduring. The limitations of society and lack of opportunity drive the characters into circumstances which seem immutable. The deep unhappiness of Etna contrasting with the obsessive love displayed by Nicholas makes for disturbing reading. The reader’s sympathies are split between the two.

This is a book that will remain in my memory as a skilled depiction of an unequal and unsatisfactory relationship. There is a sadness that seeps through the narrative that does not leave the reader easily.


Saturday, 11 April 2020

Book Review Circe

Circe by Madeline Miller

This book gives the reader a fast paced trip through Greek mythology. The heroine, Circe, is depicted as an awkward child, not endowed with beauty, desperately craving affection in her early years. 

Unaware of her powers at first, she grows into a strong willed, independent young woman, not afraid to challenge long existing traditions. Her punishment for stepping outside the boundaries is to be in lifelong isolation on a far off island. Here, she develops her powers by learning about the plants and herbs which grow around her, producing powerful potions and manipulating her world.

Encounters with human love, power intrigues, witchcraft and monsters keep the reader enthralled. This is a rewriting of myths from a feminist point of view with a freshness that draws the reader in.  Young readers will enjoy the magical world while admiring the stoic persistence of a woman against adversity.

My only disappointment was the ending. This was somewhat predictable and a little flat after the extraordinary encounters throughout the novel. However, I believe many readers will now be stimulated to dip into the Greek mythologies to learn more as a result of reading this book. 


Monday, 30 March 2020

No Time for Complacency

No Time for Complacency

Martin Luther King, in one of his speeches states; 'This is no time for apathy or complacency'.  I believe this may be the origin of the currently in favour phrase 'This is no time for complacency'.

 Our current political and medical experts leaders have repeated this phrase, along with the constantly recurring advice to stay at home in this unprecedented Coronovirus pandemic.

 It is not so commonly paired with apathy, perhaps because accusing people of complacency is less inflammatory than describing them as apathetic. It is a phrase that appears to add gravitas to rhetoric with undertones of evangelism.

But what does complacency actually mean?  Various dictionaries describe it as ' a feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one's achievements', ' a feeling of contentment or self-satisfaction, especially when coupled with an unawareness of danger, trouble or controversy',' a feeling of  being satisfied with how things are and not wanting to try to make them better'. In our present culture, it also seems to signify an unwillingness to become involved in political opinion.

We are exhorted to not be complacent about a multitude of topics. In the past few years alone, ‘there is no time for complacency’ about equality ,drugs used in competitive sport, trade developments in the EU, varroa treatment of bee populations, the medicalisation of e-cigs and cannabis and last but not least, climate change. 

As if all that were not enough, turn on the television over the Christmas period especially and you are bombarded with heart tugging advertisements to save the tiger, whale, dolphins, donkeys and pets of all types. Then there are the starving children throughout the world, water contamination, deaf/mute children, those who are alone at Christmas, the homeless, refugees, war torn devastation and other distressing human conditions to consider. 

To take into consideration all these demands for our attention places an impossible burden on the average person. In order to avoid complacency, we must also factor in present dangers and future risks. We must consider the heightened security status of the world today, be aware of terrorist threats, consider health and safety issues in the workplace, and remain vigilant for any abnormal or threatening behaviour in those around us. And now the present threat of the Coronavirus pandemic overwhelms us all.

Vladimir Nabokov stated: 'Complacency is a state of mind that exists only in retrospective; it has to be shattered before being ascertained’. It is true that we do not set out to become complacent. When accused of complacency we can either acknowledge that it might be true, or emphatically deny it (thus proving our complacency). We must all be complacent to a degree, as it is surely impossible to achieve a status of self-satisfaction without ignoring some aspects of concern about humanity and the environment. So is the theory proposed by Robert Bruce Raup in 1925 (then Professor in the Philosophy of Education at Columbia University) in his publication entitled 'Complacency: the Foundation of Human Behaviour', a continuing reality in today's society?

The NHS has introduced multitudes of protocols and performance management targets. Undoubtedly some areas of poor performance have improved as a result, but the end point becomes satisfaction at achieving a target without looking at potential further improvements. A 'good enough' culture is now established. This, in my opinion, simply affirms a base line of complacency.

Is it possible to exclude complacency from our lives? I very much doubt it. We almost need it as a fallback option when life gets too tough and the present dangers mushroom around us. A degree of self satisfaction is mandatory in order to experience contentment, and to be constantly battling with inadequacy, human distress, and environmental destruction creates paranoia and fearfulness. 

I suggest that, occasionally, we need to find time for complacency: a short relief from the exigencies of this media heavy environment we live in, a place of  simplification, a brief  but welcome comfort zone before taking on the world again. So, use your complacency with care. A little in times of mental distress goes a long way. For the rest of the time, vigilance and self-distancing will work well along with frequent hand washing.  

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Book Review Independent People

Independent people by Halldor Laxness

This Icelandic novel in translation tells the story of Bjartur and his struggles to survive as a crofter in a hostile environment. Fiercely independent, he refuses help and overcomes numerous setbacks to maintain his status after living many years in servitude.
The landscape is bleak and there is a similarly bleak emotional response from the characters in this story. Ironically the First World War is greeted with enthusiasm, because for the first time, Icelandic products sell for inflated prices and provide a unique opportunity for the poverty stricken crofters to better themselves.
Sheep feature in abundance, both in good health or otherwise, and the conversation of the crofters is centred largely on their flocks. Legends and sagas are always present in the background influencing the choices  made by the crofters, and the ability to compose and recite poetry is a skill which is greatly admired.
The sparsity of good food, lack of opportunities for education, disease and premature death, and the interminable heavy work load drive this novel and the reader cannot help being moved by the desperate state of these people.
Though I found the novel hard going at times, it is peppered with beautiful passages of description which lift the reader out of the gloom.
I would certainly recommend this to anyone interested in historic Iceland . I have a much greater understanding of the stoicism of these people as a result of reading this novel.
The author won the Nobel Prize for Literature for this work in 1955 and he is one of Iceland’s most revered authors. He died in 1998.

Monday, 10 February 2020

The Visible World. Book review

Book Review
The Visible World by Mark Slouka

This book, written in two quite distinct parts, documents a child’s immigrant life in New York in the first section, and imagines his mother’s wartime life in the second.

 I particularly enjoyed the childhood memoir in which there were memorable descriptive passages.
‘She had calves as big and smooth as bowling pins, and she always sat on the sofa with her legs to one side as if glued at the knees, and smelled sweet and sad, like a dusty pastry.’
‘He had a square block of a head silvered by stubble and ears like miniature lettuces’.

The author has a masterly way with words and a melodic style.

The second part I found more problematic. A son writing about his mother’s sexual encounters did not sit easy with me, though I fully understand his need to try to find the cause of her deep unhappiness with life. Despite these misgivings, my interest was held to the end.

I think the most fascinating aspect of this book is the description of the life and experiences of the Czech refugees in New York in the late 1940’s. The author skillfully draws us into his childhood. We find ourselves in a somewhat alien environment which is of course normality for the child.


Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Book Review. The Ninth Life of Louis Drax

Book Review

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax

by Liz Jensen

This is a strange and intriguing book which explores the paranormal and toxic relationships. Set in France, the story revolves around an extraordinary child who appears to be extremely accident prone. At first, the reader believes that his mother is in a high state of anxiety due to the constant struggle of trying to keep her child safe. Little Louis is impulsive and angry, a misfit in society, unlikeable and unsettling. 

‘I’m not most kids, I’m Louis Drax. Stuff happens to me that shouldn’t happen, like going on a picnic where you drown.’

The opening of the book is compelling and shocking. The reader is hooked from the very first sentences.

This is a mystery, a dark crime novel and a supernatural story. 

The characters are well delineated. The setting in France is believable, though I was uncertain of the era. At times it felt like it was set in the1950’s but the medical science suggested later.

I did not like the characters much, but they intrigued me and the story was gripping.

I would advise readers to approach this book with caution if you have an accident-prone child.

A film has been made of this novel in 2016 which I cannot comment on as I have not seen it.