“Ireland is a great country to die or be married in.” (Elizabeth Bowen)

Firstly, in breaking news (in the sense that it’s not news and of zero interest or urgency) I’ve finally joined the cool kids over at twitter so please validate my fragile sense of self and join me @madame_bibi. More importantly, I’ve tried to follow as many of my bloggy friends as possible but if I’ve missed you please let me know & I will rectify the situation forthwith 🙂

On with the post! This is my second contribution to Reading Ireland 2017 aka the Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff. I’m hoping to just get this posted in time, as I was sick for a week and while this meant I could finally watch the entire series of Taboo that I had stacked up, I was incapable of reading the printed word  (my capacity for dribbling over Tom Hardy remained unaffected).  If I’m too late, I hereby proclaim that there are at least 32 days in March 😉

So, its Elizabeth Bowen all round as I look at two of her novels, simply because I was lucky enough to find these lovely hardbacks in my favourite charity bookshop a wee while ago:

Firstly, The Death of the Heart (1938), which I pounced on as soon as I saw it, remembering Jacqui’s wonderful review.  Portia, a sixteen year old orphan, moves to London following a transitory life in hotels with her parents, to live with her half-brother and his wife who she barely knows. Wiki quotes Bowen as describing the novel thusly:

“a novel which reflects the time , the pre-war time with its high tension, its increasing anxieties, and this great stress on individualism. People were so conscious of themselves, and of each other, and of their personal relationships because they thought that everything of that time might soon end.”

Certainly the individuals in the novel are self-conscious, but they’re not really aware of one another. Poor Portia finds herself part of a society of selfish individuals who don’t know what they want and so end up tormenting each other while they try and work it out. Portia’s step-mother Anna is unhappy, as is her brother, but neither are sure it is the marriage to one another that is making them miserable. A rejected lover of Anna’s, Eddie, seduces Portia to alleviate his boredom, not realising that to do so to a naïve and loving 16 year old is cruel and damaging. There is an all-round lack of intimacy:

“But something that should have been going on had not gone on: something had not happened. They had sat round a painted, not a burning, fire, at which you tried in vain to warm your hands.”

Portia is temporarily packed off to the seaside to stay with a family that the London set look down as being a bit common, but they are at least lively:

“Mrs Heccomb took off her hat for tea and Portia saw that her hair, like part of an artichoke, seemed to have an upgrowing tendency…This, for some reason, added to Mrs Heccomb’s expression of surprise.”

However, while the Heccombs see Eddie for the cad and bounder he is, they are neither able to convey this adequately to Portia, nor is she willing to listen.  What emerges as Portia tries to find her place in the world and warm relationships within it, is how deeply inadequate human beings can be at communicating with one another. Bowen is interested in the fantasies that are constructed in lieu of real understanding and how these can be sustaining but ultimately empty.

“Not for nothing do we invest so much of ourselves in other people’s lives – or even in momentary pictures of people we do not know. It cuts both ways: the happy group inside the lighted window, the figure in the long grass in the orchard seen from the train stay and support us in our dark hours.”

The novel lacks any sentimentality and is a sharply observed portrait of interwar society.  What stops it from being depressing is Bowen’s glorious prose, her dry sense of humour (I don’t think we are supposed to take the characters as seriously as they take themselves) and the sense that love – imperfect and in many different guises – is there to be found, sometimes in the oddest of places.

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Apparently hair like an artichoke was an actual thing, although I think Bowen had something more flamboyant in mind…

Secondly, A World of Love (1955), which I thought absolutely stunning. Bowen has matured between these two novels and is telling less, showing more, to once again explore the complexities of human relationships with great subtlety. Lilia owns Montefort, a country house in County Cork, and her dead cousin Guy’s fiancé Antonia, lives there with her husband Fred, an illegitimate member of the family, who runs the estate so they live rent-free.

“Of this arrangement it had not yet been decided whether it worked or did not work, still less if it equitable or, if not so, at whose expense.”

Over the course of a few claustrophobically hot days in summer, Antonia and Fred’s daughter, Jane, finds love letters written by Guy to an unnamed woman which is assumed to be Antonia. This will act as a catalyst to bring the unspoken tensions between the adults into sharp relief:

“Almost no experience, other than Guy and their own dissonance, could they be said to have had in common; and yet it was what they had had in common which riveted them. For worse or better, they were in each other’s hands. Such a relationship is lifelong.”

Meanwhile, Jane is on the edge of burgeoning adulthood:

 “Not a straw stirred, or was there to stir, in the kennel; and above her something other than clouds was missing from the uninhabited sky.  Nothing was to be known. One was on the verge, however, possibly, of more.”

I really adored this novel. Again, it was sharply observed, psychologically astute, and with a wonderful undercurrent of dry humour. Bowen minutely dissects human relationships and exposes all their contradictions and conflict, but also how compromise and understanding can be reached. A World of Love felt tighter than The Death of the Heart, the containment of a few days in pretty much one place effectively conveying the claustrophobia that exists for the characters in their various ways, even as they roam a huge estate. Yet Bowen is almost baroque at times, her descriptions rich and layered and filled with meaning:

“No part of the night was not breathless breathing, no part of the quickened stillness not running feet. A call or calling, now nearby, now from behind the skyline, was unlocatable as a corncrakes in the uncut grass. Arising this was, on the part of the two who like hundreds, seemed to be teeming over the land, carrying all before them. The night, ridden by pure excitement, was seized by hope. .. All they had ever touched still now physically held its charge – everything that had been stepped on, scaled up, crept under, brushed against or leaped from now gave out, touched by so much as air, a tingling continuous sweet shock, which the air suffered as though it were half laughing, as was Antonia.”

I realise I may have lost some of you there. But if you don’t mind that sort of prose at times, especially when it’s surrounded by an astute unblinking eye for human foibles and a compassion for our frailties, please do given Bowen a try!

So that’s the end of a very hurriedly written post, please excuse all typos and general incoherence! Now to end with an Irish musician and a blatant grovel to my mother (as he is one of her favourites and I failed on Mother’s Day last weekend):

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“If you have the words, there’s always a chance that you’ll find the way.” (Seamus Heaney)

This is a contribution to Reading Ireland 2017 aka the Begorrathon, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at Raging Fluff – do join in!

I’ve decided to make debut novels featuring a crime the theme of the post (the first choice isn’t quite a crime novel, hence that rather cumbersome explanation). It was with regret that I decided the following quote – so thematically apt – was too long to pick as a title:

“There are three states of legality in Irish law. There is all this stuff here under “That’s grand”; then it moves into “Ah, now, don’t push it”; and finally to “Right! You’re taking the piss.” And that’s where the police sweep in.” (Dara O’Briain)

Firstly, The Glorious Heresies, Lisa McInerney’s debut novel which won the Bailey’s Prize in 2016 (the 2017 longlist was announced yesterday). Set in Cork, it tells the story of Robbie O’Donvan’s death – an almost homeless drug addict who theoretically could disappear with few people noticing – and the fractures that radiate out across the city from this one act.

McInerney is interested in the members of society who are simultaneously vilified and ignored. So the people affected by Robbie’s death include a teenage drug dealer, his alcoholic father, their paedophile neighbour, Robbie’s prostitute girlfriend. If this sounds depressing, it really isn’t due to McInerney’s comic voice and eye for beauty where there should be none.

“The rain cleared off in the evening, Tony walked down to the off-licence and stood outside it like a child with tuppence to his name outside the toy shop. If he pressed his nose to the glass, he may well have been able to smell it. The heady warmth of the thought seeped through his hell and into his bones and lifted his onto his toes and rose off him like holy water off the devil’s shoulders.”

She doesn’t shy away from the reality of the situation, but presents it in a complex way, so Tony’s alcoholism is seen through his own eyes as self-medication for the pressures he is under, and we also shown the catastrophic impact this has on his son, Ryan. All the people in the novel are self-aware enough to know the damage they are doing to themselves and others but they are powerless to stop it:

“How could you be two people in five years? How could you undergo such a metamorphosis – whore to saint – and paint the slattern back over the scar tissue only a few short years later?”

McInerney manages to covey insight without ever sitting in judgement on her characters. This moment stood out for me as the tragedy of people who are in so much pain, yet unable to articulate to themselves or others:

“And for the beat before he wordlessly left her she grasped something of what he was trying to say, And that it might have been nice to have someone like him, someone who got it, someone who might have stood by her and bawled her out of it when she stepped out of line.”

The city of Cork is an additional, pervasive character in the novel, surrounding, influencing and directing all the other characters:

“Jimmy had watched the city long enough to know that it would right itself, sooner or later, and that the silence following Robbie O’Donovan’s death was just a long, caught breath”

“The city runs on macro, but what’s that, except the breathing, beating, swallowing, sweating agonies and ecstasies of a hundred thousand little lives?”

I haven’t mentioned much plot-wise regarding The Glorious Heresies, because to me this was the least interesting part of the novel (but still excellent).  How Robbie O’Donovan’s death is dealt with in practical terms is the bare bones of what McInerney is writing about. As a series of characters studies of people and their city, The Glorious Heresies is warm, affectionate, brutal, bleak and incisive.

Secondly, In the Woods by Tana French (2007), the first of her Dublin Murder Squad series, focussing on detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox as they investigate the murder of 12 year old Katy Devlin. I’m not a great one for crime novels but I was persuaded by Lady Fancifull to give French a try. I’m glad I did, but first I had to make it through an appallingly overwritten prologue; I have no idea what French’s editors were thinking, letting her start with a passage which includes a description of a forest thus:

“It’s silence is a pointillist conspiracy of a million tiny noises”

Having waded through such pretentious nonsense, I was rewarded with an accomplished debut crime novel. Rob Ryan is asked to investigate the murder of a child in his home town just outside Dublin, his superiors unaware that when he was twelve, he was found in the same woods as the victim, bloodied and amnesiac, with his two best friends lost forever. If this sounds a bit clichéd, French has fun with it:

“And I suppose, if I’m being honest, it appealed to both my ego and to my sense of the picturesque, the idea of carrying this strange charged secret through the case unsuspected. I suppose it felt, at the time, like the kind of thing that enigmatic Central Casting maverick would have done.”

Maverick coppery 101

As Rob and his partner Cassie investigate Katy’s murder, they discover family secrets and political conspiracies, but did these lead to the death of a twelve year old girl, excited to be going to ballet school?

“All these private, parallel dimensions, underlying such an innocuous little estate; all these self-contained worlds layered onto the same space. I thought of the dark strata of archaeology underfoot; of the fox outside my window, calling out to a city that barely overlapped with mine.”

In the Woods was a good read and filled with believable characters, which bodes well for the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad novels as French focusses on a different person each time. Some quibbles: it was too long and (I feel like I say this all the time) could have done with a heavier-handed edit. The voice of Rob Ryan sometimes felt distinctly feminine but at least he wasn’t an alpha-male detective type. This aside, French’s talent is evident and I’m sure she’s gone from strength to strength in her subsequent novels.

To end, the cop with the least convincing Irish accent of all time, but the performance still won an Oscar, because it’s Lord High Commander Sir Sean Connery 😀

 

“Whenever I think of the past, it brings back so many memories.” (Steven Wright)

I’m a month into my new job and the main effect it’s having is that my memory is shot to pieces. Trying to cram #allthefacts about one particular health condition into my head means all other knowledge has dribbled out of my ears. In fairness, my short and long-term memory has always been appalling and I used to claim I operated in a constantly shifting 3 hour window. This is currently down to about 30 minutes. Plus I got lost at Bank the other day, when I’ve lived in London MY WHOLE LIFE. And there’s a bloomin’ great building at Bank (guess which one) to help you orient yourself.

Where am I again? Oh, yeah...

Where am I again? Oh, yeah…

So to console myself this week I’m looking at novels which explore memory. Its inherently unreliable nature means memory is a gift to novelists who want to consider how we construct reality and decide who we are. (At the moment I’m happy if I manage to construct a sentence, never mind reality and coherent sense of self).

Firstly, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2003, tr. Stephen Snyder 2008).I’m a huge admirer of Ogawa and her spare, stunning writing. In this short novel she details the relationship between a young housekeeper, her son, and the Professor she works for, who since a car accident in 1975 has a memory which lasts 80 minutes, though his memory from before the accident is intact.

“At the end of my first day, I noticed a new note on the cuff of his jacket. ‘The new housekeeper,’ it said. The words were written in tiny, delicate characters, and above them a sketch of a woman’s face. It looked like the work of a small child…but I knew instantly it was portrait of me. I imagined the Professor hurrying to draw this likeness before the memory had vanished. The note was proof of something, that he had interrupted his thinking for my sake.”

These notes cover the Professor’s suit and give him an eccentric experience which belies his brilliant mind. He is talented mathematician who sees numbers everywhere. His housekeeper became pregnant at 18 and needed to work to support her child; she is intelligent but not highly educated. Gradually though, he is able to convey the magic of numbers to her and her mind relishes the new challenge:

“With my finger I traced the trail of numbers from the ones the Professor had written to the ones I’d added, and they all seemed to flow together, as if we’d been connecting up the constellations in the night sky.”

Meanwhile Ogawa is able to convey the magic of numbers to the reader. There is no-one more resistant to mathematics than me – I won’t even play soduku. Yet the Housekeeper’s response to the discoveries the Professor opens up for her is so creative and joyful that I found myself carried along:

“I wondered why ordinary words seemed so exotic when they were used in relation to numbers. Amicable numbers or twin primes had a precise quality about them, and yet they sounded as though they’d been taken straight out of a poem. In my mind, the twins had matching outfits and stood holding hands as they waited in the number line.”

The titular characters and the Housekeeper’s son – nicknamed Root as his flat head reminds the Professor of the square root sign – form a tender alliance. The Professor cannot remember them from one day to the next, and yet he changes their lives forever, through his love of numbers and how he uses these to reach out to people.  The novel is a love story, but not a romance.  It is about the love of friends, of family, of vocation. It contains tragedy but also endurance beyond such, with Ogawa’s sparse style bringing the story a great delicacy. I adored it.

“I thought of the Professor whenever I saw a prime number – which, as it turned out, was almost everywhere I looked: price tags at the supermarket, house numbers above doors, on bus schedules or the expiration date on a package of ham, Root’s score on a test. On the face of it, these numbers faithfully played their official roles, but in secret they were primes and I knew that was what gave them their true meaning.”

Secondly, The Sea by John Banville, which won the Booker Prize in 2005. I’m still a bit conflicted about how I feel about this one, but it’s given me food for thought and is undoubtedly well-written, so I decided to add it to this blog where I only write about books I like. The Sea is narrated by Max Morden, coming to terms with the recent death of his wife. He returns to the holiday cottage which in his childhood was rented by a family, the Graces’, while Max and his family had a nearby chalet.

“I approached the Cedars circumspectly. How is it in childhood everything new that caught my interest had an aura of the uncanny, since according to all the authorities the uncanny is not some new thing but a thing known, returning in a different form, a revenant?”

The Sea is an effective exploration of memory as Max’s memories of the childhood holiday are jumbled alongside those of his marriage and especially his wife’s final illness. Chloe and Myles Grace are twins who never quite reveal themselves to Max, although he begins a tentative romance with Chloe.

“Her hands. Her eyes. Her bitten fingernails. All this I remember, intensely remember, yet it is all disparate, I cannot assemble it into a unity.”

As Max remembers the events of that summer he is forced to reflect on his wider choices and the man he is, particularly as he is now single again.

“Life, authentic life, is supposed to be all struggle, unflagging action and affirmation, the will butting its blunt head against the world’s wall, suchlike, but when I look back I see the greater part of my energies was always given over to the simple search for shelter, for comfort, for, yes, I admit, it, for cosiness.”

So… my reservations about this novel are weirdly some of its strengths. It is written in considered, careful prose, expertly structured overall to build to a conclusion that reconciles past and present. But for me it almost felt too considered, too artful. Then I wondered if Max, insecure about his social background, was supposed to be a slightly ponderous man out to prove his own cleverness? I’m not sure, I would have to read another of Banville’s novels to know. There are certainly moments of wry humour to lift the narrative at moments:

“these days I must take the world in small and carefully measured doses, it is a sort of homeopathic cure I am undergoing”

I’m undecided about Banville at present but I’ll certainly give him another try. If you’ve read him I’d really appreciate enlightenment as to his style and other novels that would be worth a read? The reason The Sea made it onto this determinedly positive blog was the final line of the novel, the final image. It was so powerful, such a perfect end, so moving and insightful: a moment of pure brilliance.

To end, it had to be either this or Elaine Paige dressed as a giant feline. Ultimately I decided to have my memories misty-water-coloured rather than alone in the moonlight. Take it away, Babs:

“Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself.” (John Milton)

Well, Milton’s got my number. My shallowness extends to books themselves –against conventional wisdom, I definitely judge by the cover.  Thank goodness I do, otherwise whole publishing marketing teams would be out of business.  This week I’m hoping other people aren’t as shallow as me as I’m starting a new job and I hope they overlook whatever gibbering first impression I make to see the hard-working-team-playing-but-definitely-not-a jobsworth- and-will-never-steal-your-lunch-from-the-fridge colleague within.

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I was also thinking about first impressions and book covers following an interesting post by Lady Fancifull a few weeks back, about a marketing campaign which played on this exact bias.  Earlier in the year, I was persuaded by another blogger, Cathy at 746 books, to stop being so shallow when I won a book in her giveaway, encouraged by her great review, although its cover meant I would never have picked it up normally. So in this post I’m going to look at the book I was lucky enough to win, and a book whose cover would have attracted me even if I wasn’t already a fan of the author.

Firstly then, Fallen by Lia Mills (2014). Here’s the cover:

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Yuck, right? Curlicues – seriously? I would never have picked this up, thinking it looked like a fluffy romance, which is not my taste at all. But while there is a love affair in Fallen, it is not romanticised. Mills is interested in the fallout from war on both those who served and those who remained behind (often women) and how a generation of young people were irrevocably damaged.

Katie Crilly is living in Dublin in 1915 and trying to find her way in a world where she doesn’t know what she wants, except that she definitely doesn’t want what others expect of her. Then her twin brother Liam announces he’s off to join the war effort.

 “He went into his room and shut the door. The latch clicked like a scold’s tongue, made me wish I’d a more generous heart. The silence on the landing was so deep I heard my own pulse tick.”

Liam dies, and Katie has to cope with profound grief, and the fact that her grief is commonplace:

“We’d heard that, in the Dardanelles, many of the Dublins were put off their boats into water that was too deep for them. Pulled under by the weight of their packs, they drowned, while Turkish bullets and mortar fire tore into their comrades and churned the sea red. The gas unleashed at Ypres, around the time that Liam died, was still claiming lives two months later. Every second person on Sackville Street wore a black armband, or a cuff.”

While all this is happening, the Easter Rising explodes onto the already wrecked population of Dublin. Katie finds herself stranded in the home of friends who are also giving shelter to a wounded soldier, Hubie, who knew Liam. Hubie, his wounds visible and invisible, is furious at the ignorance of those who have remained at home. Katie does not turn her face away from the horrors of war and recognises in Hubie a fellow haunted soul:

 “If you love someone, and that person dies, all that love becomes a burden, a weight accumulating, pooling inside you, with nowhere to go. What do you do with it? … Sometimes it gathered itself into a shape, a shadow, peeled itself off the ground and attached itself to my heel. It followed me and spoke, in Liam’s voice”

Fallen is about an ordinary life caught up in exceptional circumstances. It is about how to find meaning in a world where national events dwarf the individual. Ultimately it is a hopeful book, about how a fractured self can be rebuilt, whole but wholly different.

And it is very much about Dublin: Mills evokes a strong sense of place and Fallen was a perfect choice for Two Cities One Book, in the centenary year of the Easter Rising.

“There was something raw about the morning, as though layers of the city’s skin had rubbed off during the night.”

Secondly, The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami (2005, tr. Allison Markin Powell, 2016). I was excited to read this as I’d loved Strange Weather in Tokyo and was disappointed that none of Kawakami’s other work had been translated into English. The Nakano Thrift Shop was translated this year and like Strange Weather, the cover features one of Natsumi Hayashi’s beautiful levitating photographs:

Gorgeous, no? The pictures really capture the vibrancy, unpredictability and humour of Kawakami’s writing.

In The Nakano Thrift Shop, Hitomi takes a job at the eponymous business, uncertain of what she wants from life and hoping that the job will be undemanding:

“With its second-hand goods (not antiques), Mr Nakano’s shop was literally filled to overflowing…Mr Nakano would raise the shop’s shutter and, with a cigarette between his lips, he’d arrange the goods intended to tempt customers outside the front of the store…Sometimes ash from his cigarette fell on the turtle paperweight’s back, and Mr Nakano roughly brushed it off with a corner of the black apron that he always wore”

The owner has several ex-wives and a mistress. Despite his unprepossessing appearance, Mr Nakano has irresistible charm:

“I’d heard the phrase ‘a boyish grin’, but Mr Nakano’s grin was decidedly middle-aged. There was something scruffy about it. And yet, at the same time, it was also a winning smile. I suppose it’s the kind of smile that women, as they age, can’t resist”

Hitomi, Nakano, his artist sister Masayo and the driver Takeo form an unlikely quartet as they are thrown together. And really, very little happens. These four idiosyncratic, wholly believable characters rub along together in their day-to-day lives of triumphs and tragedies, some larger than others, explored through different objects in the shop. Takeo and Hitomi begin a tentative, on-again-off-again relationship that was heart-breaking, real and funny in its tenderness, misunderstanding, affection and frustration:

“I would eat a diet rich in vegetables, seaweed, and legumes, and every day would be sparkling and bright, my life brimming with health and vitality. While imagining this, I was again filled with a general sort of sadness. I definitely wasn’t sad because I was thinking about Takeo. Definitely not.”

This is not the novel to read when you’re in the mood for a heavily plotted, eventful story. Yet Kawakami captures the drama of everyday lives and their meaning. Her writing can also be startling, so while it is concerned with the ordinary it is never banal:

“The skin on Saskiko’s cheeks was glowing with an inner light. Just like the bottom of the gin jug, they reflected a dusky and beautiful radiance.”

The Nakano Thrift Shop is touching and life-affirming, but never sentimental. Fingers crossed for further translations…

To end, some shameless objectification of someone whose outward appearance has been my idea of perfection since 1981:

“The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader.” (Paulo Coelho)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the film version of a book is never as good as the original text.  Except I don’t think that’s true.  This week I’m going to look at two books where I think the film was better, but the novels are still worth reading.  Slightly odd tack for a book blog to take, and I may end up regretting this, but let’s crash ever onwards!

Firstly, The Commitments by Roddy Doyle (1987).  Here’s the trailer for the 1991 film, with a brilliant script by the author, in collaboration with the long-term writing partnership of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.

The Commitments is Roddy Doyle’s first novel, detailing how a group of white, working class Dubliners set up a soul band together.  I think in this novel Doyle is really learning his craft, and his writing gets progressively stronger as he goes along.  The Commitments is a far from terrible book, but it’s a bit slight, and filled with so much dialogue it reads more like a script than a novel for much of it.  Still, if you’re going to have a novel filled with dialogue it may as well be written by Roddy Doyle, who has a great ear for how people speak and seems to take real joy in capturing it on the page:

“-Grow a pair o’ tits, pal, an’ then yeh can sing with them, said Billy.

– Are you startin’ somethin’?

-Don’t annoy me.

– Here! Said Jimmy. –None o’ tha’.

The time was right for a bit of laying down the law.

-No rows or scraps, righ’.

-Well said, Jim.

– An’ annyway, said Jimmy. –The girls are the best lookin’ part o’ the group.

– Dirty bastard, said Natalie.

-Thanks very much, Jimmy, said Imelda.

-No sweat ‘melda, said Jimmy.

-What’ll we sing? Bernie asked Joey The Lips.

-You know Walking in the Rain?

-Lovely.

– I WANT HIM, Imelda sang.

– It doesn’t exactly have a strong feminist lyric, does it? said James.

– Soul isn’t words, Brother, said Joey The Lips. – Soul is feeling. Soul is getting out of yourself.”

You can see that this is writing really stripped back: minimal punctuation, not always clear who is speaking.  The style suits the tale of a bunch of people with very little creating music with only their voices and few instruments.  It makes The Commitments a quick read, and the characters are evoked with warmth through minimal authorial intervention. By writing in such a sparse way, Doyle allows the characters to speak for themselves. At other times he uses scant detail, rarely embellished with imagery, to portray the lives of the band:

“’Joey The Lips got one of his dress suits dry-cleaned. Dean crawled in under his bed and found the one he’d flung under there. He soaked the jacket till the muck was nearly all gone. Then he brought it down to the cleaners.

Black shoes were polished or bought or borrowed.”

The Commitments is a well-observed story, evocative and humorous. However, a novel about music will always have much to gain from being filmed; hearing the talented cast of the film give their voice to soul classics brings the characters into being in a way that is nearly impossible in print.

Secondly, The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973).  Here’s the trailer for the 1987 film adaptation, screenplay by the author:

One of my favourite films from childhood that I still love to watch today – a definite winner on a rainy Sunday afternoon.  Again, it’s not that the book is bad (the film is scripted by Goldman after all so you wouldn’t expect a great deal of difference) but the film is better.  It takes all the best bits of the book and distils them into a fast-paced, funny narrative; the book can be a bit flabby at times by comparison.  The film also offers some of the best cameos ever: Billy Crystal as Miracle Max, Mel Smith as the albino torturer, comic genius Peter Cook as the Impressive Clergyman, as well as a perfectly cast set of main characters.  But if you like the film, you’ll like the book.  The same dry, silly humour runs through it, and who wouldn’t love a tale of: “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”

The tale is one of Princess Buttercup, who falls in love with the stable boy Westley.  He goes off to seek his fortune, and is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who famously leaves no survivors.  Believing her One True Love to be dead, Buttercup agrees to marry the hunting-obsessed Prince Humperdink.  Before they can marry she is kidnapped by a gang comprising the cunning Vizzini (“never start a land war in Asia, [… and] never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line”), the giant Fezzik , and genius-swordsman-with-a-vendetta Montoya (“my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”) They are followed by the mysterious Man in Black, who seeks to foil their plans… Will goodness triumph? Will true love conquer all? Yes, of course, to both.  This is a lovely escapist fantasy, but at the same time it is a  satire on established rule and its abuses, which gives the story a more serious dimension. Prince Humperdink has arranged the kidnap of Buttercup in order to blame a neighbouring country and start a war.  (Fill in your own contemporary analogy here.)  He tells his henchmen to seek the “villains” in the thieves quarter:

““My men are not always too happy at the thought of entering the Thieves Quarter.  Many of the thieves resist change.”

“Root them out. Form a brute squad.  But get it done.”

“It takes at least a week to get a decent brute squad going,” Yellin said. “But that is time enough.

[…]

The conquest of the Thieves Quarter began immediately.  Yellin worked long and hard each day […] Most of the criminals had been through illegal roundups before, so they offered little resistance.””

Goldman is also able to extend his humour in the novel towards the processes around writing, which he couldn’t do in the film; for example his editor querying his translation of the “original” story by S. Morgenstern:

“this chapter is totally intact. My intrusion here is because of the way Morgenstern uses parentheses.  The copy editor at Harcourt kept filling the margins of the galley proofs with questions: […] “I am going crazy. What am I to make of these parentheses? When does this book take place? I don’t understand anything. Hellllppppp!!!” Denise, the copy editor, has done all my books since Boys and Girls and she had never been as emotional in the margins with me before.”

So there we go: two film recommendations as well as two book recommendations in the same post – call it a late Hogmany present from me to you, dear reader. Enjoy!

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Feminist Sundays: The Woman Who Walked into Doors – Roddy Doyle

Feminist Sundays is a meme created by Elena over at Books and Reviews. Here’s what she says about it: “Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme created at Books and Reviews. The aim is simply to have a place and a time to talk about feminism and women’s issues. This is a place of tolerance, creativity, discussion, criticism and praise. Remember to keep in mind that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, although healthy discussion is encouraged.” Do head over to Books and Reviews to read the excellent posts for this meme so far.

This week for Feminist Sundays I thought I’d put a downer on Christmas – if you’re full of festive cheer you may want to stop reading now.  I love Christmas, and I’ve had a great time this week decorating my flat (OK, so I’m a bit behind), wrapping presents and icing Christmas cakes.  I do this in anticipation of the day itself which for me will be fun, silly, relaxed, full of food, and getting slightly tipsy (OK, fairly drunk – when else do you drink alcohol at breakfast?  Why does the birth of Jesus make early morning Bucks Fizz acceptable? Whatever – it’s a fine tradition) in the company of my lovely family. I can confidently state in advance that there will be no weird atmospheres, no aggression, no physical assaults.  But this is not the case for everyone.  Unfortunately, the Christmas period consistently sees a rise in domestic violence compared with the rest of the year.  And although I’m looking at this topic as part of Feminist Sundays, (as the majority of domestic violence cases are male violence towards women) domestic violence can happen to anyone: any gender, any sexuality. It’s a subject Roddy Doyle explored in his 1996 novel, The Woman Who Walked into Doors.

The novel is narrated by Paula Spencer, a woman who is beaten regularly by her violent husband Charlo.  Paula works as a domestic cleaner, and self-medicates with alcohol.  Hers is a voice rarely heard in fiction; Doyle does a brilliant job creating the character and all that surrounds her through a narrative that intertwines the present with reminiscences of the past:

“Where I grew up – and probably everywhere else – you were a slut or a tight bitch, one or the other, if you were a girl – and usually before you were thirteen. You didn’t have to do anything to be a slut. If you were good-looking; if you grew up fast. If you had a sexy walk; if you had clean hair, if you had dirty hair. If you wore platform shoes, and if you didn’t. Anything could get you called a slut. My father called me a slut the first time I put on mascara. I had to go back up to the bathroom and take it off. My tears had ruined it anyway.”

Into this world comes Charlo Spencer, a sexy man who literally takes Paula’s breath away: “I suddenly knew that I had lungs because they were empty and collapsing.”  The romance of their first meeting contains a horrible irony in the soundtrack:

“His timing was perfect.  The Rubettes stopped and Frankie Valli started singing My Eyes Adored You.[…] He’d been drinking.  I could smell it but it didn’t matter.  He wasn’t drunk.  His arms rested on my hips and he brought me round and round.

-But I never laid a hand on you-

My eyes adored you-

I put my head on his shoulder.  He had me.”

This is immediately followed by a description of the aftermath of an assault:

“I knew nothing for a while, where I was, how come I was on the floor.  Then I saw Charlo’s feet, then his legs, making a triangle with the floor.  He seemed way up over me.  […] his face was full of worry and love.  He skipped my eyes. – You fell, he said.”

Charlo’s violence escalates, and Paula gradually comes to realise that he will not change, and that she is not alone in this experience. Doyle achieves the extraordinary balance of writing responsibly about a serious subject and still providing hope:

“For seventeen years.  There wasn’t one minute when I wasn’t afraid, wasn’t waiting. Waiting to go, waiting for him to come.  Waiting for the fist, waiting for the smile.  I was brainwashed and braindead, a zombie for hours, afraid to think, afraid to stop, completely alone. I sat at home and waited. I mopped up my own blood.  I lost all my friends, and most of my teeth.”

Ultimately Paula is a survivor: Doyle returned to her in the sequel Paula Spencer, ten years later.  I haven’t read the sequel (one of many on my TBR pile) but I highly recommend TWWWID. Roddy Doyle is hugely talented at capturing authentic voices in his writing, and TWWWID is no exception.

If you are affected by domestic violence, please, please contact Refuge (UK) or the equivalent service in your country.  They are there to help, not to judge.   Here’s a powerful video make-up artist Lauren Luke made on behalf of Refuge:

“Walk on air against your better judgement.” (Seamus Heaney, Nobel Lecture, 1995)

I wasn’t planning on posting this week, as I have two exams on Thursday, and despite the fact that I am a major procrastinator I’m really trying to revise.  (And keep getting distracted by episodes of Cake Boss, of which there seem to be approximately twenty million.  If I end up answering a question with the phrase “Byron is prime example of poetry in the Hoboken style, baby!” I have only myself to blame.  A little in-joke there for anyone else who follows this extraordinary bake-fest.)

Anyway, I wanted to post to commemorate the work of Seamus Heaney, whose death was announced today.  This is a sad loss to the contemporary poetry scene.  Heaney was as extraordinarily sensitive poet, dedicated to his craft, alive to all the possibilities of language.  To see him interviewed was the opportunity to listen to someone intelligent, unpretentious and engaging.

I’ve picked two of his poems pretty much at random.  He was a prolific writer so even if you don’t think much of my choices do check him out, there’s bound to be something for you.

Firstly, Blackberry Picking.  I chose this poem because I’m pretty sure this was the first Heaney poem I ever read, at school.  My English teacher was a massive Ted Hughes fan, so Heaney (contemporary and friend of Hughes) wasn’t too much of a leap.  You can view the whole poem here.  I’m just going to look at the first ten lines, and then the end line.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.

I love his imagery here.  I grew up with blackberries at the bottom of my garden and to me this vividly evokes that memory, but also his use of language is so accessible.  Sometimes contemporary poetry (or any poetry) can seem so impenetrable.  Heaney is great communicator, and I think this poem is easy to understand.  That’s not to say it’s simple – there’s a violence to this childhood memory, created through the visceral imagery (clot/flesh/blood/lust/scratched) that unnerves me, and stops it being a straightforward nostalgia trip.   Heaney’s last lines are often powerful and punchy endings.  In Blackberry Picking it’s this:

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

I think this is so simple and beautiful.  It succinctly captures the sadness that tinges childhood memories, and the way we learn that the world is not always as we want it to be, or something we can control. I don’t want to go on too much because I think poetry is an intensely personal experience, and everyone sees and gains different things from it.  I hope its enough of a taster to encourage you to check out the full poem.

Secondly, Two Lorries.  This is quite a famous poem of Heaney’s, from his Whitbread Award winning collection The Spirit Level, published the year after he won the Nobel Prize.  I chose it because there’s a recording of Heaney reading the poem available online, here.  What better way to experience the poem? This is one of the poems where Heaney looks at the Troubles that have been the enduring political experience of his country in his lifetime.  Here are the first two stanzas:

It’s raining on black coal and warm wet ashes.
There are tyre-marks in the yard, Agnew’s old lorry
Has all its cribs down and Agnew the coalman
With his Belfast accent’s sweet-talking my mother.
Would she ever go to a film in Magherafelt?
But it’s raining and he still has half the load

To deliver farther on. This time the lode
Our coal came from was silk-black, so the ashes
Will be the silkiest white. The Magherafelt
(Via Toomebridge) bus goes by. The half-stripped lorry
With its emptied, folded coal-bags moves my mother:
The tasty ways of a leather-aproned coalman!

This shows Heaney’s great skill at capturing life experience: the voices of his mother and the coalman are so clear and direct, despite being indirectly quoted.  Once again, I find his imagery so beautiful, and disturbing.  The idea that the coal turns from one extreme to the other (silk-black to silkiest white) is an image that has so much to say, and the extremity is evoked within a resolutely domestic scene gives it an extended context that makes it personal and political.  The second lorry of the title is the one that blows up the bus station in Magherafelt.  Here’s the end of the poem:

So tally bags and sweet-talk darkness, coalman,
Listen to the rain spit in new ashes

As you heft a load of dust that was Magherafelt,
Then reappear from your lorry as my mother’s
Dreamboat coalman filmed in silk-white ashes.

I’ve said before that I find it hard to write about things I really love.  This is one of those times.  The end of that poem is incredibly powerful and moving, I think I’ll just let it speak for itself.

Seamus Heaney 1939-2013.

Seamus Heaney

Image taken from: http://www.laobserved.com/archive/2013/08/seamus_heaney_nobel_prize.php