Simple pleasures, elegantly phrased

Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid
by Virginia Woolf

This collection of essays in the Penguin Great Ideas series were originally published between 1925 and 1942 (a few being from a posthumous collection). I think I am growing to prefer Woolf’s essays to her fiction, which is probably some kind of heresy in a literature graduate, but these are truly beautiful pieces of writing.

The majority of these essays are about books, though there are a couple about the pleasures of walking in London, plus the titular essay which is literally what it says, though of course in Woolf’s inimitable style, full of imagination and passion and ideals. Woolf writes about how men are by nature inclined to war, and how women must help them to rise above such base instinct. Her politics creep in as she wonders whether, with more women in government and other high positions, there would be any war.

It is interesting to read an essay from the 1920s or 1930s pondering whether the fiction of the time stands up to the classics of the past, seeing what names are mentioned and whether they mean anything to me now, so many years later. Woolf suggests what will last will be “a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mere” (Yeats and de la Mere, yes, but Davies? I’m not sure who she means) and “Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness but hours of something very different” (assuming she means D H Lawrence then that is indeed one critics continue to argue over the “greatness” of) and “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster”, which may be my favourite opinion of that book!

There are several essays here in a slim little volume; each one short and self-contained. Woolf has a point to make but occasionally seems to change her mind halfway through, before concluding that the original question in fact has no clearcut answer. She is concise, intelligent and informed but her prose is still beautiful:

“Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit…?”

I do not always agree with Woolf’s arguments or conclusions. For instance, in “The art of biography” she states that biography was a late-18th century invention (wrong! though there was a major resurgence in the form at that time) and that it is a mistake to combine facts with fiction or speculation (I actually think this can lead to some remarkable writing, as long as it is made plain to the reader that it isn’t a straightforward history). But she argues her case so well that I don’t mind disagreeing.

The collection ends with “How should one read a book?”, in which Woolf says that there is no simple answer to that question, and then goes on to talk around the subject in what is, more than anything, a treatise on the joy of reading. I was intrigued by her comment about reading poetry, because I know a lot of avid readers avoid it – “the time to read poetry [is] when we are almost able to write it”. She talks about judging a book after having read it, whether we should be kind or harsh, and how the reader’s emotional response signifies a difference between them and the critic:

“Would it not be wiser, then, to remit this part of reading and to allow the critics…to decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us? Yet how impossible!…there is always a demon in us who whispers ‘I hate, I love’, and we cannot silence him. Indeed, it is precisely because we hate and we love that our relation with the poets and novelists is so intimate…”

I will definitely be looking out for more Woolf essay collections. Any recommendations?

This selection first published in 2009 by Penguin Books.

A peek inside

Censoring an Iranian Love Story
by Shahriar Mandanipour
translated from Farsi by Sara Khalili

This is a complicated book to explain, and indeed to read and form a reaction to. But it’s also an illuminating look into a world we in the West don’t get to see in detail: modern-day Iran.

Mandanipour tells the story of an author (called Mandanipour, in a postmodern manner) who is trying to write a simple love story for publication in Iran. The problem is that censorship is so strict in Iran that he keeps having to delete or change sentences or whole scenes, compromising his art. So in this novel we get both his love story and his thought process about it inbetween, including his flashbacks to previous encounters with the chief censor, Mr Petrovich, and imagined future ones.

There are many complications to writing a love story in Iran, not least of which is how your characters can possibly meet. Unmarried men and women should never be alone with or speak to members of the opposite sex outside of their family. This is controlled both in reality – by a combination of genuine religious belief and militia – and in the arts, by censorship.

It’s a very eye-opening, important story to tell but the problem is that by using this two-layer technique, by explaining where the ideas for the characters come from and rewriting scenes as you try to follow them, it’s hard to get involved in the love story. But you also don’t really get to know the author as a character, so you are left at a distance from it all. This doesn’t stop it being readable and enjoyable even, but it did prevent it from being absorbing.

The love story is that of Sara and Dara (named after characters in now-banned learning-to-read books well known in Iran), a young pair whose love story begins with books, in particular banned or heavily censored books. The author explains how the books are either edited by hand with a black marker pen or printed with ellipses all over the place and how this leads the ellipsis to have an almost magical, often erotic, quality. He also explains the various methods Iranian authors use to evade censorship, including heavy use of allusion and metaphor, which he feels makes a story harder to read and less true to its art.

Dara is knowledgeable about great works of literature and film, and both he and the author reference both heavily, almost as though they are secret code, which I suppose for them they are. Dara has a “political past” which means that he can never earn a great deal or risk stepping out of line. Sara is young and nervous about breaking rules or letting down her family, though she does have a passionate nature that can get her into trouble.

What makes this book occasionally hard to follow is that Mandanipour blurs the line between the two stories, so that sometimes Sara or Dara speaks directly to the author, or an anecdote the author tells about his life merges into their story. But even without this, the story isn’t straightforward. There is some toying with magical realism and the fantastical, there is a recurring character who is a street pedlar selling spells and love potions, and there’s a dead dwarf who keeps popping up.

However, it isn’t a struggle to read because what shines through all the complexity of plot is a love of language and a playful humour. For all his frustration, the author loves his country and its rich history and references many Persian poets that I had never heard of. He introduces characters and stories from Persian literature, sometimes veering off again and again from his original point so that it is a jolt to come back to Sara and Dara.

Though he has been writing for decades, this was Mandanipour’s first full-length work to be translated into English. I would be interested to read more (and will look out for the short stories his bio implies are out there somewhere in translation).

First published in Great Britain in 2009 by Little, Brown.
Paperback published in 2011 by Abacus.

Back to the classics

The Time Machine
by H G Wells

The Time Machine

This is one of those greatly revered classics that made people look on with admiration while I was reading it, but actually isn’t a particularly hard read. It’s also not the most engaging, but it is full of Big Ideas.

And that’s both its strength and its weakness: this is an intellectual exercise more than it is a piece of entertainment. Wells was a scientist and drew on new exciting ideas in science to create a vision of the future that in its time would have been shocking, provocative, beyond credible and startlingly different from anything else, whereas now the science is widely known and accepted, what is left is a slightly bald political parable.

Somehow I came to this without really knowing the story. I mean, I’ve seen and read references to it (both Family Guy and Futurama have episodes devoted to this story) but I hadn’t seen any of the film versions or read a synopsis so some of it was a surprise to me.

The Time Traveller (as he is known throughout the book) has gathered together a meeting of London intellectuals to tell them about his new invention, the Time Machine. When they don’t believe him, he tells them to come back a week later when he will have seen the future, and it is his account of this trip to the future that forms the bulk of the novella. The format is slightly odd, in that an unnamed (indeed, un-anything) first person narrator attends these two meetings and records them in a manner somewhere between a journalist and a scientist, so that it’s fairly dry but with the occasional interjection of emotion.

The first thing that struck me was that this isn’t that familiar narrative of jumping a few years at a time into humanity’s future, finishing with a quick trip to the end of the world. The Time Traveller jumps straight beyond the human race as we know it, to the year 802,701 AD, and most of the story is set in that one time (though there are a couple of further jumps forward). In this future, human beings have evolved into two distinct species – the gentle, childlike, darkness-fearing Eloi and the ominous, monstrous-looking, light-fearing Morlocks. The Time Traveller can only conjecture how these races came to be and recounts more than one theory that he subsequently rejected upon further observation.

This means that we cannot necessarily trust the Time Traveller’s interpretation, and indeed his descriptions are a little sparse. Can we be sure that these creatures are all that human-like? When he acquires a female Eloi companion he tells us that she is called Weena and she is really the only character to have a name, almost as if he is trying a little too hard to humanise her.

Without being shocked by the conceit of suggesting that mankind might one day evolve, the political allegory seems a little heavy-handed. Wells paints an extreme end to the widening gap between rich and poor, with the idle rich becoming the Eloi and the industrial working class becoming the Morlocks. There is also an interesting point about both having lost the need for intellectual capacity, because “Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

I will admit I was more scientifically interested in the descriptions of the further future, with geological timescales having passed, where Wells describes not only an ice age but also changes to the Sun, the Earth’s orbit, various stars, the Moon, tides, even other planets in our solar system. He was building on recent discoveries in physics and this description was no doubt just as revolutionary (and possibly just as provocative) as his evolved humanoids, but it is also beautiful. The story of the Eloi and the Morlocks is essentially a sad one but the continuation of Earth through immense changes in the solar system is somehow uplifting and inspirational.

As a story, I was a little disappointed in The Time Machine – I didn’t find it engaging, the characters are deliberately insubstantial and many of the ideas no longer appear original or daring. However, it is still a clever, inventive take on the travellers’ accounts that it is built on.

First published 1895.

Comics are for grown-ups

Skellington

Skellington
Scary Go Round book 3
by John Allison

As the title intimates, this is the third collection of Allison’s Scary Go Round web comic strips in print, in this case taken from May 2004 to March 2005. All of those comics are still available, for free, on the Scary Go Round website so why would I (well, okay, Tim) buy this in book form?

First of all, it’s a book! And we like books. They are good. Slightly more seriously, I struggle a little to follow a storyline of any length in a webcomic. Too much clicking, too much waiting. I am impatient like that. Also, Allison has thrown in some bonus features – rewritten bits, introductions to each story and some sketches he did for character development. I really like the extra insight that this gives. And last but not least, we buy his books to support an author who is creating great work.

But what is Scary Go Round? Well, previous to this book I had only read snatches of it over the years so I am almost a newcomer myself. As far as I can tell, it is a comic that follows the lives of a group of mostly 20-somethings living in Yorkshire, to whom insane things happen often. But there’s the occasional story that doesn’t involve the regular characters at all, which is either to confuse the reader or to give Allison a break/change/fun new experiment.

In this volume, most stories centre around housemates Amy and Shelley. Shelley is sensible, responsible and works as the mayor’s assistant. Amy is ditsy, haphazard and works for a crazy inventor guy who she may or may not have a crush on. There’s a fairly large cast of regular/recurring characters, including Shelley’s former housemate Fallon who is some kind of kickass secret agent (in fact, she has her own book, titled Girl Spy).

Storylines include Shelley and Amy going to a death metal concert, and a teapot time machine. From mundane daily life to extraordinary oddness, the dialogue is funny and the interaction between characters warm and realistic.

According to Tim, who knows about these things, Scary Go Round and its predecessor Bobbins (from which several characters survived) were some of the earliest webcomics and are important in terms of carving a new genre and format. Scary Go Round itself has now ended, but Allison’s new webcomic Bad Machinery is going strong.

Published 2005. Print version no longer available but I’m hoping the e-book will be added to the Scary Go Round store soon.

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

This week has been (and just about still is) Book Blogger Appreciation Week, which is a fab event for, you know, book bloggers. I sadly have been far too busy to take part properly but I wanted to say a quick hello and thank you to the book-blogging community. You’re ace.

Though I haven’t been able to post on this every day, many many people have done just that. You can find out more and follow some or all of the links to their posts here. Each day this week had a theme for discussion, and today’s is “blogging”.

I didn’t intend to start a blog. No, really! A few different things led me to the idea of creating a website and my initial idea was almost a database of short book reviews, but as I started the design process I looked around the interwebs and realised that a book blog made total sense. And there were lots of them about to share thoughts and ideas with.

Although I was reasonably web-savvy (and had the huge advantage of knowing HTML, thanks to my day job), it’s still a pretty steep learning curve, this blogging thing. I am always learning new things and the main way I do that is through my fellow book bloggers (and indeed some non-book bloggers, who are also great). I can’t join in every meme, readalong, challenge or giveaway but I do tip my toes in. I love that there is such a huge, active community with so much going on.

We’re supposed to include in this post “essential tried and true practices for every blogger and new trends or tools you’ve adopted recently or would like to in the future”. My tried and true are:
1. Follow, read and comment on lots of other blogs that you like.
2. Install Akismet (for WordPress) to catch those nasty spam comments.
3. Don’t be afraid to tell people you know that you have a blog (unless it’s anonymous and/or deeply personal, I suppose!) – most people are really interested and will stop by to have a look.

As for new trends or tools, I recently took part in a couple of blog hop giveaways, which were fantastically successful. It’s a great way to reward your readers and being part of a blog hop rather than just hosting it yourself means that it’s likely at least someone will enter!

Future terrors

The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood

My immediate reaction on finishing this book was “Oh wow” (in fact, I think I tweeted exactly that). I am so grateful to my book club for getting me to read it and suspect it will be a book to come back to, time and again.

This is an amazing, intense, important story that is also gripping and immensely readable. Atwood cleverly dripfeeds information about what exactly is going on, which makes it a little difficult to describe without any plot spoilers, and because of this I’m extra glad I was able to have a book club discussion about it.

The book’s title and the Bible quote at the start of it (Genesis 30:1–3) make reasonably clear at least one element of the story, even if the details are only slowly filled in. The society in which this book is set, the Republic of Gilead, designates certain women as handmaids and their sole purpose is to bear children. A handmaid is assigned to a married couple who have been unable, for whatever reason, to have children themselves. The handmaid is stripped of her former name and must wear a uniform that immediately identifies her role and hides her body and face, as well as obscuring her view of the world. It is a curiously old-fashioned situation in what appears to be a near-future North American setting. But it is of course far more complicated than just this and has its reasons for being as it is.

One other thing that is clear from the start is that there is a great fear of the state, via hidden spies or cameras or just loyal citizens willing to speak up about any trangressions of the many rules. One of these rules is that handmaids may not read or write at all, a rule so strictly enforced that the heroine obsesses over one written word that she sees every day. This society places a lot of emphasis on role and status, with the privileged as well as the less so immediately marked out by their clothing. It is a terrifying vision of a totalitarian state (and not just because of the reading and writing thing) partly because as you trace the steps that were taken to create it, it is conceivable that it or something similar could happen. As the narrator says in a prayer:

“If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.”

But it’s not at all a difficult or even challenging read because its narrator is so engaging and real. The handmaid of the title never reveals her former name, but between documenting her life as a handmaid she reminisces about life before and through that we learn about the background of the current regime as well as about her. It is her job, as a handmaid, to be a vessel and no more and as a narrator she is also a vessel for revealing an exercise in science fiction, but she is also an ordinary, relatable human facing extraordinary circumstances (to us, anyway). She vacillates between embarrassment of and admiration for her mother. She is trying desperately to survive, no matter what it takes, and yet contemplates methods of suicide. She has a fondness for flowers and word games.

Though by no means a comedy, there is a certain wit to Atwood’s writing. Even in the loneliest moments when the world is cold, a small detail seen or heard or remembered will be warm, familiar even.

****Spoiler warning – you might want to skip this paragraph if you’ve not read the book ****

This book was first published in 1985 and to an extent it reveals the fears and preoccupations of its time. Gilead might be described as a fundamentalist state, making it a crime to follow any other than the state religion. The world has suffered as a result of chemicals in the water supply and nuclear reactor meltdowns. There has been an AIDS epidemic and there have been riots over abortion. The same book written now might choose slightly different background events than these, though they are all, of course, still relevant.

****End of spoiler****

At book club we discussed how this future vision is not only possible but could almost be said to be happening in certain strict Islamic states. Indeed, in the decade before this book’s publication Iran suddenly went from being a modern, egalitarian place to a totalitarian, fundamentalist country with women suddenly driven out of higher education and most jobs, suddenly forced to dress and behave differently.

“Women” really is the key word. Though not militantly so, this is a feminist text. It is the story of men either choosing to or being complicit in the subjugation of women. Because we see the world through the handmaid’s eyes, we never really learn much about the lives of men in the Republic of Gilead, but from what we do see their lives are not nearly so bad as for women.

This is not the first Atwood I have read but it is probably the best. It definitely makes me want to read more of her work, particularly any that fall into the speculative/science fiction category.

First published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985.
Winner of the 1985 Governor General’s Award and the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize and the 1987 Prometheus Award.

See also: review by Connie at The Blue Bookcase.

Give it up

When you are first diagnosed with a chronic illness it seems as though you are constantly having to give things up. Good things. Fun things. Chronic illnesses don’t tend to be a death sentence but they often appear to be a boredom sentence. It can take years of living with the disease to work out that you don’t need to live like a monk after all and I have often wished that doctors would try harder to get this message across.

For instance, when I was at university I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (the first of my chronic ailments). My GP told me to give up alcohol (as a hard partying, hard drinking student, that was bad enough), plus coffee, spicy food, tomato skin and dairy. Just like that. He did say there might be other irritants but didn’t advise how to identify them. Now maybe I was just unlucky. I’m sure other doctors out there have the sense to advise a detox diet followed by reintroducing possible irritants one at a time. I worked it out for myself, but with no advice to follow I did rather a bad job of it. I didn’t keep a food diary, didn’t try to add small amounts of foods and then larger amounts. I just cut things out and then started eating them again and guessed at whether my IBS pains were being caused by a food item or the stress of university.

After many years of trial and error I have now worked out that I didn’t need to cut anything out entirely, I just need to limit my intake of certain things, particularly stress. And the most effective change to my life that reduced stress? Being diagnosed with lupus. Odd how life works, huh?

Of course, lupus brought its own limitations on fun. Never having any energy means rarely doing anything on a week night. Near-constant headaches, joint pains and brain fog mean I often feel antisocial and struggle to make conversation with people I don’t know very well. Avoiding the sun in summer puts me in the opposite mindset of everyone else. I often have to cancel plans, which close friends and family accept (and I love them for that) but it makes it hard to go to gigs or the theatre, stuff that needs to be booked months in advance.

So when I was first ill with lupus, I stopped doing everything, near enough. I became good friends with the TV and the DVD collection. I took everything more slowly, moving house so that I could walk to work and the doctor and the train station. I was bored a lot of the time, but I wasn’t stressed.

Until, that is, I got fed up with being bored. I hadn’t expected to ever be one of those people whose life is work, TV, bed, but that’s who I’d become. I didn’t go out like I’d used to, didn’t take any of the evening classes I’d planned to, even gave up writing, my favourite hobby since I was six years old. Something had to give.

My first saving grace was photography, as I’ve talked about here before. I’d had a camera almost my whole life but it wasn’t until Tim bought us a good digital camera that I really discovered the creative possibilities and found that I wanted to learn all about F numbers and exposure settings and all sorts of things. Here was a hobby that I could do as much or as little of as my diseases allowed me to. It got me out of the house and going for walks. It gave me something to talk to new people about, when the brain fog allowed.

My second saviour? Really good food. I have always loved my food, even if as a vegetarian with IBS I seem like a horribly picky eater. But I discovered that I didn’t mind cutting back on foods that I love, like cheese and ice cream, if I found the absolute best form of that food. I mean, no-one gorges themselves on white truffles or caviar; you’re meant to have very small amounts of it and savour it for days afterwards. That’s how I treat coffee, or chocolate, or alcohol (most of the time). I spread these pleasures out over my week, so it doesn’t feel as though I’m missing out at all.

I’m sure there are people who would look at my life and call it dull. I don’t get drunk (often), or stay up late, or join the latest extracurricular fad. And I do get frustrated with it all sometimes, but I have learned to take life slowly and appreciate the small things and I suspect that makes me happier with my lot than many a “healthy” person out there.

What larks, eh?

Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves
by P G Wodehouse

It’s perhaps surprising that I had never picked up a Wodehouse before, and I’m glad I’ve finally indulged. This is one of the later titles in the canon but I already knew the characters and storylines from the TV series so I figured it made no difference. Maybe one day I’ll read them all in order.

Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves are such well established characters that I’m not sure I need to describe them but I’ll give a quick sketch for the unfamiliar. Wodehouse wrote short stories and novels about these characters over an almost 60-year period but all are set at an unnamed time that appears to be between the two world wars. Bertie is a loveable idiot, an idle English gentleman who has a wide circle of friends and gets into endless scrapes. Jeeves cleverly and subtly (for the most part) extricates Bertie from said scrapes and generally puts the world to rights.

The story is narrated by Bertie, which is where much of the humour lies. Though he can be dim-witted, he is a lover of words and often drops in slightly ridiculous overblown literary references, though he generally has to confirm the line with Jeeves. He seems to have no fear of looking foolish, but quite happily wades in to any situation and does, says and wears whatever he likes (though Jeeves does exert some control over his wardrobe).

This novel refers back a lot to previous episodes but the salient facts are repeated so that isn’t a problem. The main story is that Bertie is persuaded to visit Totleigh Towers – a stately home in Gloucestershire – to fix a rupture in the relationship of his friends Madeline Bassett and Gussie Fink-Nottle. (Yes, the names are brilliant, though occasionally confusing because Bertie calls them all by nicknames such as Stinker and Stiffy.) It sounds like a selfless task but in truth Bertie’s primary motivation is that due to a previous misunderstanding he has promised to marry Madeline if things don’t work out with Gussie; only he really doesn’t want to marry Madeline.

As ever, Totleigh Towers is awash with visitors plus of course its owner, Sir Watkyn Bassett, who is a strong contender for Person Who Hates Bertie Wooster The Most. Mix in a few questionable favours that are bound to get Bertie in trouble and an attempt to lure Jeeves away to a new employer and the scene is set for all sorts of fun.

And fun it really is. While Bertie can be – as his friends and acquaintances frequently observe – an ass, he is well meaning and endlessly accommodating, not to mention frightfully chipper (as he himself might say). There is a certain degree of rose-tinted nostalgia about it all and we sadly learn next to nothing about Jeeves besides his impeccable professionalism, but let’s face it, this was never intended to be social realism. Wodehouse is amiably mocking not only Wooster but also all of his social circle, and yet there is also a clear yearning for those days when life was this simple. I would like to see if that tone is something that crept in over time (it seems likely) so I will just have to buy some of the earlier titles. What a hardship!

First published in 1963 by Herbert Jenkins Ltd.