Memorable Reads in 2011

It has been a memorable 2011 both in reading and sharing, one of my aspirations this year having been to learn how to create a blog.

What joy it has brought, the creation, the writing, the reading, the sharing and the community of readers and wonderful like-minded souls who comment and share and have opened their worlds to me. I didn’t expect or foresee all the joy and wonderful interaction that would come from creating a virtual entry into my world of books and reading and that this would lead me to so many others.

So thank you to all those who follow this blog, my wish for 2012 is that the inspiration and motivation we provide each other will long continue.

To rank anything would be torturous, and even to list favourites is near impossible, so I will mention some memorable reads in no particular order and no doubt regret those I have left out later.

muze 62

1. Muze No.62    ҉   not a big consumer of magazines, in February I discovered this volume at Le Mans TGV station. The words CULTURE, ECRITURE, LECTURE jumped out at me, then Louise Bourgeois – Eugénie Grandet, Proust à l’écran, Flannery O’Connor, Argentine and Le Sacré excited me and the cover just melted my heart. It did not disappoint, I now have another favourite magazine (and a most enjoyable way to improve my French).

2. Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb    ҉   Recommended by mon amie B, this was my first foray into popular French fiction. A hilarious account, said to be based on the author’s experience of a year working in Japan, you end up thinking she’s either a saint or a masochist as she fails to integrate into the work environment.

3. The Children’s Book by A.S.Byatt   ҉   having not read her work for a long time, I was pulled into this Edwardian world of potters, ceramics, the Victoria & Albert museum and the varying sensitivities of children. A mesmerising and colourful journey.

4. Seven Days to Tell You by Ruby Soames   ҉   will remain with me always as a turning point, the first book I read prior to publication, fear and delight combining to produce this review.

5. The Diving Pool, The Housekeeper + The Professor by Yoko Ogawa   ҉   I will remember 2011 for discovering Yoko Ogawa’s short story collection in Oxfam, introducing me to her gripping and evocative style, followed by the poignant and memorable novella ‘The Housekeeper and Professor’.

6. Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh   ҉   this classic collection of ‘coming of middle age’ essays published in 1955, stays with me because it arrived the day my daughter was admitted to hospital and was one of my choices of books to accompany me during those challenging two weeks.

7. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver   ҉   the ten year wait club, I recall awaiting Louis de Berniere’s ‘Bird without Wings’, one of my all-time favourite books and this year there was Jeffery Eugenide’s long awaited ‘The Marriage Plot’ and Kingsolver’s ‘The Lacuna’ which I loved and review here.

8. A Kind Man by Susan Hill   ҉   shortly after reading an author’s interview in Mslexia and a subsequent visit to Daunt Books in Marylebone, I couldn’t help but be tempted (and indulged, thank you G) by Susan Hill’s ‘A Kind Man’. I respected her attitude and perspective in the interview and instinctively savoured each page of this fable-like novella. I then read ‘The Beacon’ confirming Hill as a writer I know I will continue to read, happy there is a lengthy backlist.

9. The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B by Sandra Gulland    ҉    my first blog review and wonderful memories of two trilogies shared with my best book reading buddies C and M.

And finally, no memorable list could be complete without mentioning the companionship of:

10. Mslexia   ҉   the quarterly magazine for women who write and more often women who juggle at least one or more jobs, a family and numerous responsibilities but who find 2, 5, 10, or just any hours to dedicate to writing, they are all an inspiration to me and I love to read all those who succeed in becoming published through its pages. An inspiration, a writing prompt and always a great read.

Happy New Year Everyone!

Passionate & Dedicated – Aung San Suu Kyi ‘The Lady’

It seems appropriate in the year that three women won the Nobel Peace prize, that we remember ‘The Lady’, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won this prize twenty years ago in 1991, nominated by the admired leader and humanitarian, former Czech president Václav Havel, who died this month.

It is debatable whether most know Aung San Suu Kyi for her steadfast dedication in promoting the ideals of democracy and metta (a Buddhist term meaning loving kindness) to the people of Burma, or for the longevity of her term as a prisoner of conscience, held under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years from 1989 until her release in November 2010.

Winning the Noble peace prize increased her prominence and brought her cause and the plight of suffering Burmese and hill tribe people to the attention of the international community.  Just this year she was visited with open arms by Hilary Clinton, not long after announcing she would run for election in upcoming byelections.

I picked up Justin Wintle’s book ‘Perfect Hostage’ Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma and the Generals, believing it a biography, mislead perhaps by the striking portrait which graces the cover and select testimonials describing it as so. In fact, I would call it a historic treatise of Burma and while of significant interest in itself, I did find it frustrating that it took close to 200 pages to encounter Aung San Suu Kyi within its covers. Though there is depth in the historical account, I found the reverse to be true in terms of the author’s evocation of Aung San Suu Kyi, in fact I found many of his comments patronising and uncomfortable:

Had SLORC not placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, it is improbable that she would have been given the Nobel Prize…‘ and on a tribute she wrote about her father ‘ This, the notion of St Aung San, may have been over-egging the cake’ and ‘When I saw that Aung San Suu Kyi had got a third class degree I let out an involuntary chuckle.

I am certain that the author interviewed many people, that is clear, but as to coming to some understanding and appreciation of Aung San Suu Kyi and her perspective or her personality, the text remains curiously detached.  Dare I say, I detected a hint of what could almost be compared to a colonial attitude, as referred to in George Orwell’s novel ‘Burmese Days’ (himself born in India with unacknowledged Burmese relatives in the family). That would be going too far I am sure, but it frustrated me enormously and made me yearn to read something actually written by Aung San Suu Kyi herself, something this book is remarkably short on.

However, letting go of the expectation of an exquisite biography and seen as the historical treatise that it is, I find a thorough and detailed account of a remarkable country and ethnic melting pot of people who have long been subject to tyrannical rule. Sitting between India in the west and China in the east with borders that touch so many countries, Tibet, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, it is not surprising that it comprises so many ethnic groupings and hill tribes and has encountered so much conflict.  It has a unique history of rising to great prominence and descending into chaos, as each successive victor sought to impose their will.

It provides an interesting introduction to Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San, his haphazard entrance into politics and the fraught relationship with Japan, set up to assist in the removal of the British, only to find they had replaced one empire seeking power with another.

‘I went to Japan to save my people who were struggling like bullocks under the British. But now we are treated like dogs. We are far from our hope of reaching the human stage, and even to get back to the bullock stage we need to struggle more.’ Aung San, at Maymyo, June 1942

With independence secured, the future looked positive in many respects. Democratic elections in April 1947 elevated Aung San to leadership, until he was betrayed and assassinated by one of his fellow countrymen. The country struggled to take advantage of its newfound independence and while the coup in 1962 was seen by many at the time as a hopeful resolution, it signalled the beginning of torturous dictatorships that have cost many lives, exiled others and kept Burma’s icon for free, democratic choice under arrest.

Aung San Suu Kyi was a reluctant hero; married with two children to the Oxford academic Michael Aris, a leading Western authority on Bhutanese, Tibetan and Himalayan culture, she returned to Burma to nurse her mother after a stroke and found herself sharing the hospital ward with many student victims of the atrocities occurring under the regime.  Astounded, she absorbed the horror of their stories and they listened to her reflections urging her to become actively involved in the struggle.

Just as Buddha gave himself up for the betterment of sentient beings, so Aung San Suu Kyi by offering herself to the people of Burma, was put in such circumstances she had little choice but to leave her family behind, a test the regime continued to dangle in front of her, in their hope she would leave and the people forget her. Her persistence in staying kept the candle of hope burning for millions and perhaps we may now see the fruit of that hope manifesting in their upcoming elections.

The Housekeeper + The Professor

Having recently discovered and read Yoko Ogawa’s
‘The Diving Pool’, I was further intrigued when I saw this novella displayed in my local bookshop and couldn’t resist another of her works with its beautiful cover and the promise of an alluring story about a woman who visits an eccentric mathematics professor each day to clean his home and cook his meals.

Reading ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ is a little like a meditation in mindfulness; although we might escape into the book, we are held in its present, for each day is a repeat of the previous and follows a pattern, such as we might too if our memory were constantly erased after eighty minutes, the habits we would continually follow, because we have been reduced to the very core of our nature, without the accumulation of memory from yesterday, last week or last year.

The Professor is a mathematics genius, whose memory ceased functioning after an accident some years before, so while he retains his mathematical genius and his long term memory before the accident, he has lost his short term memory.  It lasts only eighty minutes and so he has devised crude methods to remember things, such as pinning small pieces of paper to his suit to remind him of important facts, otherwise he starts every day anew.

The housekeeper arrives each morning and introduces herself as if they have never met. Slowly, she and her ten year old son, whom the Professor refers to as Root – a reference to the square root sign and his hair, are drawn into the Professor’s reduced world where numbers reign supreme and the two visitors begin to understand the magic and meaning behind what they had always thought of as ordinary numbers.

Whether you hated mathematics at school or loved it like I did, you will find yourself attracted to the arithmetic secrets the Professor unveils, which stir more than a mild curiosity in the significance of certain numbers and the challenge of elegant equations, as both the housekeeper and her son discover to their own delight.

Eternal truths are ultimately invisible , and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions.  Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression – in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.

In essence, it is a meditation on the simplicity of life and an introduction to the complexity and significance of numbers; it is about letting go and accepting things the way they are and deriving small pleasures from the mundane.

Yoko Ogawa’s writing and storytelling flows like a sparkling river, it draws you in and carries you along; there are few surprises just gradual awakenings. There is a vulnerability to each of the main characters that we pick up on, which forewarns us, characters we become sympathetic to, whom I was sad to leave behind but will be revisiting again for sure.

Time Passes, Reality Bites – A Visit from the Goon Squad

‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ by Jennifer Egan (winner of the Pulitzer prize for fiction 2011) was recommended in a comment on my post ‘Why People don’t read short stories’ and I then had the good fortune to swap books with a book buddy and was delighted to discover that this was the treasure she was trading.

There has been much discussion already about the title; what exactly is a ‘goon’ and is this even a relevant question? I decided not to search for an answer and instead to come up with my instinctive response at the end, I prefer to hazard a wild guess although the cynic in me did wonder if it wasn’t just a gimmick.

A novel or a set of stories, each chapter is separate yet connected by the barest of threads to the previous, sufficient to surmise a pattern, although like many creations, the complete picture does not become clear until the work is finished. It reminds me of six degrees of separation, that we are all connected and that even when we are, there are gaps in history’s, we only ever know part of a person’s story.

It is a testament to Egan’s writing  and one of its strengths that her book reads like a novel because we are immediately drawn into and engaged within the world of her well cast characters, mentioned briefly in one chapter, discovered in depth in the next, it is not like starting a completely different story, more like starting an abstract jigsaw puzzle in opposite corners knowing that eventually the pieces should add up. We read and make the connections, searching for them, perhaps even creating them ourselves. I wonder, is that my imagination at work or the writer’s – or both working in unison?

We encounter this in Italo Calvino’s ‘If on a Winter Night a Traveller’ and also in Alice Hoffman’s ‘Blackbird House’, a slim thread enough to spur the reader on in the quest for enlightenment.

In Egan’s novel we meet Sacha who works for Bennie in the music industry, Bennie himself, his wife Stephanie, her ex-convict journalist brother Jules, Dolly who used to be Stephanie’s boss, Ted, Sacha’s Uncle and others whose lives have interacted at some point. We meet them at different periods in time, during particular episodes in their lives where even the young seem to have already lived numerous lives and carry a burdensome past that haunts their present. There is an underlying dissatisfaction with how things have turned out, the inevitability of time passing and taking with it something vital and essential.

Which reminds me, the goon squad; as Bosco says on page 134 ‘Time’s a goon, right?’ and so too I believe that a visit from the goon squad is just this, time passing and the oft harshness of reality.