Allende’s The Japanese Lover – another mistitled book

Book promoters must believe romance and chick lit sells better than stories about families affected by war and human trafficking. The Japanese lover in Isabel Allende’s novel is really a character of a subplot that draws other characters (not the lovers) together and as a loose commentary about interracial relationships in post-war America. The romantic elements play second fiddle to a story that starts with Jewish immigrants fleeing Hitler’s Europe and continues with a Japanese family in California sent to an internment camp. These elements run alongside a more modern story of immigration from poverty in Moldovia only to face slavery and child abuse in America. Embedded in both stories are romantic relationships, but two of which are not truly romantic – an unrequited love and a marriage of convenience.

The novel should have been entitled Lark House as that’s the name of the free-spirited and eccentric residential home that brings together the two stories and their main characters. Alma is one of Lark House’s more independent residents. A painter and designer from a wealthy family who was brought to America as a child to escape the war in Europe, at the end of her life, she meets Irina, a young care worker. While Irina struggles to come to terms with the abuse of her past, she befriends Seth, Alma’s grandson. The young friends piece together Alma’s mysterious past, uncovering the older woman’s affair with Ichimei, the son of her family’s gardener.Allende 1

While Allende weaves these plots together seamlessly, her prose isn’t remarkable. At times, the omnipotent narrator is so distance from the characters and their physical surroundings, some passages read like journalistic reportage. That aside, it still was a good read and often hard to put down.

#MeToo – The Rally

Although I’ve been to my share of women’s marches and rallies over the years, I never would have thought that I would go to one dedicated to stopping violence against women. It’s not that this isn’t a worthy cause – of course it is. But I had come to believe that violence and sexual harassment against women wouldn’t be taken seriously enough for women to even attempt such a demonstration. Nor did I think enough women would speak up, especially in recent years when the label ‘feminist,’ supposedly a bad thing, is so readily attached to women who publicly recount their experiences.

In the 90s, there were marches in major cities, mostly in America, to ‘Take Back the Night.’ Those were admirable, but aimed at the stranger and the gangs on the streets targeting women. The bigger picture is more personal and disturbing.  At the rally yesterday in Nice, one of thousands held across the world, the French numbers were bandied about on signs – last year, 109 women were killed at the hands of their partners; of the roughly 200 reported cases of attempted homicide in the same year, three quarters of the victims were women; and 48,000 rapes occur every year.

How can any civilised society allow this to happen? I won’t go into the history of patriarchy here, but the patriarchy we live in has normalised violence against women. It’s been pointed out by many that the term domestic violence in English is a prime example of this normalisation, where deadly assault has been reduced to something akin to a family squabble. It’s no better in French, where such crimes are called drame famille and crime passionnel – both sounding like the content of soap operas.metoorally3

The rally was more than the statistics. It was a place where women stepped up to the microphone in the middle of Place Massena on a busy Saturday afternoon to tell their stories of rape, continued sexual harassment, sexual aggression and verbal intimidation. Their attackers were strangers, neighbours, fathers, brothers, partners, doctors, dentists and co-workers. Violence against women takes many forms. I’m glad we’re finally speaking up about it and supporting each other. While the laws and public awareness are gradually changing, sometimes I’m fearful of another backlash against feminism that could undo all of this. But ever the optimist, at other times I’m more hopeful, knowing full well that such societal changes don’t come easily.


A flying visit to Le Petit Prince

The first time I read The Little Prince I was twelve and naturally read it in English. This was when pop psychology ruled my thinking, and I saw the book as a fictionalised dialogue between the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and his inner child.  I recently reread this novella, this time in French, which gave it a different flavour in my mind – more intellectual and whimsical at the same time. With this reading, I’m more struck by what it says about human nature in broader political contexts than with the personal and psychological. From here it was easy to see how it reflects the age we’re living in now.

Early in the story, the little prince asks a stranded aviator to draw him a sheep. After a couple of awkward attempts, the aviator draws a picture of a box with some holes in it and tells the prince the sheep is in the box. The prince accepts this and their friendship is cemented. In the present day, I’ll call this image the current British government, who received the picture of the box from the Leave campaign. I don’t think I need to explain this metaphor in any great detail. Any sensible person knows that the box is filled with the likes of a well-funded NHS, a robust economy and a lucrative trade deal with the remaining EU. The air holes are there to make this world seem real, a place where people live and breathe.

Another passage reflects pertinently in our age of the internet. The little prince climbs up to the top of a mountain and calls out to see if anyone is there. All he gets is an echo, which he mistakes for conversation.

The story also has plenty of characters suited for today’s headlines – an illogical king who claims he controls the movement of the starts, a vain man who craves attention, but whose vanity keeps him isolated, and a geographer who draws maps, but never leaves his own desk to experience the world he has helped to construct. I don’t think I need to mention the true life characters by name.

I’ve met people who reread Le Petit Prince every few years or once a decade. I don’t think I’ll join either of those clubs. Having read it once as a child going through puberty and now in my middle-age, my next appointment with this book could be in my very-old age. Who knows what metaphors, insights, ideas this little literary gem will conjure up then.

Petit Prince 2

Brexit, Trump and W.B. Yeats

Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ has had a revival over the past year or so. With reactions to Brexit and Trump, the poem was quoted more in 2016 than in the total of the previous 30 years. (Wall Street Journal and Factiva).


Now here we are in 2017. So far, Brexit has unleashed a rise in hate crimes, economic uncertainty and feelings of general incomprehension in the UK as ‘things fall apart’ and as we watch as ‘the centre cannot hold.’ In Trump’s America, a ‘blood-dimmed tide’ is both present and inevitable as mass shootings are condoned and conflicts overseas are rekindled with heated rhetoric.

But what is to come of all of this? I revisit the poem:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Written in 1919, soon after the First World War and the Russian Revolution, this work reacts to the horrors and violence of such conflicts. More importantly, it expresses apprehension over what is to come. Over the years, many have seen this poem as an accurate premonition of a second coming in the form of an anti-Christ – Adolph Hitler. As has been pointed out by many in the press, the present day holds startling parallels to pre-War Germany, with the rise of nationalistic propaganda and untruths capable of seducing millions.

Yet, I feel the need to put this into perspective. Others have alluded to this poem over the years. Joan Didion’s collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Night Ride Home’ are among the many works to keep this poem alive. These works were written long before Brexit and Trump and each with their own political concerns and fears at their time.  Seen collectively like this, I do wonder if the recent malaise – the far-right, the hate crimes, the nationalistic fervour – are all part of a tide that will inevitably ebb back to something perhaps different, but manageable, less worrying.

Yet, the recent surge in quoting from ‘The Second Coming’ is still significant in itself. Most of these allusions can be found in the press, where the educated, the so-called ‘urban elite,’ dwell. As recent investigative reporting and British and American government enquiries are starting to show, it was the elite class of billionaires who indirectly funded both Brexit and Trump’s presidential campaigns. Both employed social media, which spread into mainstream media, to disseminate their propaganda and untruths. The response to this has come, during these campaigns and even more now, from the true masses – the urban and educated. We are the ones seeking to understand what is going on, turning to Yeats en masse. In our bewilderment and fear, we ask if what we have witnessed is a sign of the ‘rough beast, its hour come round at last.’

Online Book Groups – The People’s Literary Criticism

When we think of book groups or clubs, our first thoughts are likely to be of a group of suburban women gathered around a coffee table with sweet snacks and hot drinks. Or we think of libraries and bookshops, were such groups draw on more diverse and urbane memberships. Common to these face-to-face groups is the idea of socialising around books – indeed, linguistic studies of face-to-face book groups have pointed out that a great deal of social interaction takes place that is not about the book at all. Online book groups are a different matter altogether. With the exception of private book groups on social media sites, online participants usually don’t know each other offline. These groups cultivate discourse often devoid of personal stories that aren’t book related. More book talk than social talk, might online discussions about books become a new form of literary criticism?

I wouldn’t have asked this question some five years ago when I started my research on online book groups (published as The Discourse of Reading Groups). First of all, book groups are largely about readers’ opinions of books. Which books they liked and which they didn’t. Genre book groups, such as crime, thriller and romance, tend to focus on book recommendations and comparing one book to another. Some readers appear to use these groups to build identities as fans of one author or another, listing all of the books they’ve read. This was my introduction to online book groups and hardly the stuff of literary criticism. But that was me being a professional reader – academic/reviewer – or perhaps just a snob.Discourse Book-best

Some professional readers also look down upon the emphasis on reading for pleasure that can dictate opinions and impressions in book group discussions. This is specially the case with genre books. But this is where I break ranks. Reading as a leisure activity goes back to the days of Aristotle – the first literary critic. Though he may not have used those exact words, the relationships between learning, aesthetic experience and pleasure were fundamental in Aristotelean thought.

Once I moved on to other types of online book groups, I discovered that in giving opinions, what often emerges is a sense of empathy – the ways that books reflect the narratives of our own lives or have characters whose reactions, feelings of pain, love and fear touch our own experiences. But online book groups, unlike face-to-face, are inadvertently recording these opinions and experiences. They make them available to anyone with internet access to read. From these postings, consensus and debate flourish. And from them we can see cultural trends and ways of thinking – much like the job of the literary critic.

Close readings of the type found in literary criticism are also not lost in online book groups. This is because not only is social talk diluted among strangers, but also because most online communication is asynchronous. The time between postings in online conversations could be as little as a few minutes and as long as several weeks. These time gaps allow readers to think about their interpretations of books and about their responses to other readers’ points. Readers can draw from other written sources, including other books by the same author or with similar themes, journalistic book reviews and literary criticism, and can comment on language in ways more considered than in synchronous face-to-face contexts. For close readings, I recommend the online book group and the discussion group around The Guardian book blog.

Could the array of online book group discussions from the highly empathetic, Oprah-style book club, to the analytical be harnessed in a way to give it credence as a new wave of literary criticism? To answer this, we need to recognise the unspoken opposition. It’s not just about the absence of professional readers, the self-identification or the idea of pleasure reading lurking in the background. It’s the internet. Open to all, the web has become the world’s soapbox. It’s abundant with opinions masquerading as news, unsourced arguments and photos of people’s cats. Literary criticism, on the other hand, has been cultivated in universities and has been spread through the written word in the required peer-reviewed publication. But there’s an overlap going on here – traditional literary criticism in its peer-reviewed forms is also a part of the internet, accessible to all.

It was Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, who said that he had hoped the internet would ‘cross barriers and connect cultures.’ I share this hope.  I’d like to think that online book groups and other online discussions about literature will help to bridge the gaps – educational, social, class-based – between professional and ordinary readers.


I was a slightly chubby, acne-faced tomboy at 12 years old. I wore jeans or cut-off shorts in the summer and – having started to develop breasts – always shirts that were too big on me. Despite all of this, a part of me felt that I was at fault. I must have said something or acted in a way that made a 40 -year-old man want to grope me. An extended grope that lasted at least five long minutes – hard to say exactly as unpleasant memories play tricks on the mind. At times, over the years, I recall it being thirty minutes.

But one thing I do remember clearly – at 12, I believed that episodes like this only happened to girls who asked for it.

The only thing that stopped this man, who was one of my bosses, was a customer arriving at the front of the shop. At this tender age, I had a part-time job, working with a girlfriend in the studio space of a photography and silkscreen business. My friend and I stuffed cardboard into white t-shirts and glued backing on to posters. We were too young to legally work and were paid by piece and not by the hour. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds. It paid better than a paper route and wasn’t as girly as babysitting. Perfect for a kid like me, looking for money to pay for record albums and a new baseball glove.

Little did I know then that this was the start of years of workplace sexual advances, inappropriate touching and objectifying language that didn’t end until I left my last fulltime job in the UK in 2013. Interestingly, in Oman, a traditional Muslim society, I was never a victim of any such behaviour – though I wasn’t treated equally in the workplace given my status as a woman and as a foreigner. Today, working in distance education and freelance writing, I enjoy among the advantages the safety of working from home.

At 12, I didn’t tell anyone at the time about what had happened. Even my best friend and co-worker. I thought that the boss hadn’t tried anything on her even though she was the pretty one – slender with clear skin and beautiful long brown hair. But maybe she hadn’t said something or done something to encourage him. I was simply too ashamed to ask her. I can’t remember now what excuse I gave. Maybe it was school starting again or missing out on baseball. I must have found something and quit the job a week later.

A couple of years after that, I ran into the girl who replaced me at the studio. We talked about working there and she was quick to point out that one of the bosses was a ‘pervert.’ He had done the same thing to her. Finally, I could talk about it. Together, we connected the dots. This company only hired girls, too young to work there legally and unlikely to speak out. I wanted to talk to my best friend who had worked there with me about it. But she had moved away and was in the midst of a family tragedy. She and I never had that conversation. I can only hope now that she has spoken about it with someone.

The Weinstein case and other cases involving high-profile people have opened the flood gates. Not to diminish the importance of speaking out against such acts, but they are pointing the finger to the powerful and rich, people in the public eye. What about the young and vulnerable across the spectrum of the workplace? Victims whose predators are ‘ordinary people’? We can’t use public humiliation as leverage.


Brexit without the politics

I’ve lost track of all of the group meetings, political rallies, panel discussions and public talks I’ve attended on the subject of Brexit since the referendum. Inevitably, the names Johnson, May, Davis, Farage, Corbyn and Cable come up, as do the words soft and hard Brexit. Then, a few weeks ago, I went to a panel discussion about business in the East Anglia region after the referendum.  With this panel, most of these names of politicos didn’t come up at all. Nor were the ideas of a soft or hard Brexit bandied about. Why not? Because there were no politicians, political activists or journalists on the panel.

Without the politics, the business leaders in the region talked about what they were doing to deal with the problems they currently face as a result of the referendum. One businessman, who owns some fifty farms and food production facilities in Europe, including East Anglia, described how his local business has suffered. Fifty percent of his workforce is seasonal and most of them are from Eastern Europe. Thanks to the post-referendum spike in hate crimes, especially those targeting Eastern Europeans, this farm owner is having serious difficulties hiring seasonal workers. His solution has been to move part of his operation to Poland and Senegal.

Another speaker was there to give advice about how to go global and reach outside of the EU. He wasn’t talking about expansion, but survival. In this, he was positive about the prospects, saying that businesses could go global ‘without difficulty.’

A couple of other panellists came to the discussion as legal experts, one in dealing with the EU and the other in international trade. They both agreed on two things. One was that the current uncertainty about how we are leaving the EU was damaging business.  The other was that the government – any government in this situation – would struggle to cope with the actual matter of leaving the EU. It’s been decades since the UK was involved in trade and legal negotiations like this – we simply don’t have the appropriate staff or experience.

In recent months the occasional story has surfaced in the news about finance companies and banks in London moving part or all of their offices to Paris and Frankfurt. So too have articles appeared in the national press about UK high-tech firms relocating to Romania. Of course, such solutions are taking jobs and business revenues out of the UK. We don’t know if this is part of a transition phase before we become a different kind of country – a smaller, more marginal country. Or if this is the catalyst to reverse Brexit altogether. Either way, it’s dealing with the present and helping businesses and those who run and work for them to stay alive.

It’s taken me three weeks to get around to writing this blog. Three weeks with these ideas hovering in the back of my mind. Clearly, my thinking has been challenged. It’s like looking at a building when it’s up close or seeing it from an aeroplane. The same building can look vastly different. Since June 2016, I’ve been approaching the Brexit problem as a political activist, with all the meetings, rallies and talks. Now I’m starting to wonder – even though politics got us into this mess, it might not be the way out. I’m not saying that we give up on our politicians altogether – they’re a necessary evil and they do hold power.  But when it comes to some of the problems that Brexit is causing, it’s worth considering solutions and non-political approaches offered by businesses and other organisations.

EastAnglia farm2
Aerial shot of farms and villages in East Anglia.

Ely for Europe

Our little group – only little because Ely is little – was formed following the Referendum vote on 23 June 2016. I agreed sometime last year to become the group’s co-chair, thinking that when elections came up I would take a casual step backward and watch as others clamoured for the position. That didn’t happen. I’m still co-chair. But in truth, I don’t mind as we have evolved into a group that’s actually getting things done.

In the early months of our existence, we spent much of our time together grumbling about how the Leave campaign won the vote and consoling each other as if we had been victims of a train crash. Our activities then had to do with keeping each other informed, writing to our MP and attending the protest marches around the triggering of Article 50.

Soon after, we were wrapped up in local elections. This made it difficult for our cross-party group to meet and discuss issues without members gritting their teeth at each other, the odd gibe slipping out. Overlapping with that, in terms of campaigns, was the general election. That too made meetings difficult, but as it was more or less an election about Brexit, we were able to come together on that and deal with the many tasks of being an official organisation – we have a constitution and a presence on Facebook, Twitter and in the local events magazine, along with links to national anti-Brexit organisations.

Now that a lot of our admin tasks are out of the way and we’re into our second year, we continue to attend rallies against Brexit, write to our MP and hand out flyers and leaflets at market stalls. More importantly, we acknowledge that there are different points of view – those that want to stop Brexit before it officially happens and those who are resigned to it happening, but want to limit its damage. While those aims might sound negative or reactionary, the positive sides are still there and are in our name – we want to keep our ties to the rest of Europe, share in its cultures, ideas and languages, and to welcome its citizens, who, like us, are citizens of the world.

The Week in Feminism

With Saudi women finally getting the right to drive and the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, I’m reminded of the continued sexism and misogyny of our day.

While I’m pleased that women in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are not only allowed to drive cars, but are able to do so unescorted by a male, I’m annoyed by the idea that this part of the new Saudi King’s programme of ‘modernisation.’ KSA is technologically one of the most advanced countries in the world. The King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology was started in Riyadh back in 1977. According to Forbes, KSA is one of the world’s largest investors in technology today. And they have already launched several space satellites. A typical Saudi owns smart phones, tablets, laptops and an array of high-tech home entertainment systems. In terms of education – another indicator of modernisation – their primary and secondary schools were among the first in the Gulf States. Literacy rates in the Kingdom are now comfortably above the global average.

Yet for all of this, women were only given the right to vote in KSA in 2015 and now in 2017 the right to drive. Modernisation has been rather selective.

Of course, many countries, including some in the West, would also fail the fairness test when it comes to women’s rights relative to other developments.Saudi women 2

With this news about Saudi women, I’ve been reminiscing on my driving experiences in Oman, the country next door. While Oman is a country where women could drive, few did. Usually, I was driving with David in the passenger seat and I only had to deal with the dangerous habits of other drivers, typically young, male, on their mobile phones, speeding and cutting across lanes of traffic as if at the Monaco Grand Prix. When I was in the car driving by myself,  I also had to deal with male drivers pretending to drive me off the road, revving up their engines and blinking their lights behind me or driving closely alongside my car, looking at me and laughing.  I should point out that this was often on the highway between home and work with a posted speed limit of 120 kilometres per hour. I knew this harassment was because of my gender. I felt I had landed on a planet where the men – on the road at least – never stopped being teenagers.

This brings me to Hugh Hefner. I’ve been cringing these past few days as glowing tributes have been paid to this professional womaniser. It has been said, mostly by the man himself and now in his obituaries, that he was largely responsible for the sexual revolution of the sixties. If that’s true, such a revolution according to Playboy magazine was for men only.  In a complete and fair sexual revolution, men and women would have been featured in the magazine full frontal nude or engaging in sexual acts together. But we all know that Playboy and the persona that Hefner embodied were about the objectification and demeaning treatment of women. Where women weren’t treated like life-size dolls, they were reduced to bunny rabbits.

Having said this, I’ve also been comforted by the many writers and commentators – nearly all women – who have reminded the public of the man’s misogynistic remarks and his emotional abuse of women which continued until his death. Famous or infamous – the fact that there is a divide in opinion, like the views on women driving in the Gulf, illustrates that the struggle for equality has a long way to go.

Unfinished Fiction

Consider this an un-review. In recent years I’ve surprised myself with a growing number of books that I’ve abandoned before finishing. Sometimes I’m inspired by a film adaptation to read the original story. Such was the case with Twelve Years a Slave, which I thought as a film was an intriguing slave narrative. The book, however, was written as a memoir by Solomon Northup in the mid-1800s. For this modern reader, the prose was too formal and laden with description. Ten pages in, I gave up. But I wasn’t alone. According to Kobo, their e-book of Twelve Years a Slave was left unfinished by over 70% of readers who started it.12 years a slave

When choosing books, another draw for me has been the shortlists of major prizes, such as The Booker and Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction.  This gave me both Ann Pachett’s Bel Canto and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. With both, the writing and pace held my interest until I was just past the halfway mark.  For me, these applauded books sagged in the middle. Bel Canto, a modern-day hostage drama, took its grip off me when I didn’t care about the characters anymore. Some of the hostages were so two-dimensional I was wishing for their release or death just to have them out of the way. With The Luminaries, the middle lost me when I realised the plotlines and characters were too familiar. Of contemporary fiction, I’ve read many a novel set in Australia or New Zealand in the 19th century.  Like other books of this sub-genre, the focus was on characters, many humorously flawed, seeking their fortunes. Without the laughs, I probably wouldn’t have made it halfway.

Perhaps the most disappointing category of unfinished novels is the shelf inhabited by some of my favourite writers who let me down later in their careers. Annie Proulx’s Barkskins did just that. I thought The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain were exquisite pieces of writing, with passages and scenes that I still remember years later. Barkskins started out well, but killed off a couple of the main characters too soon. I stayed with it for a while into the next part as it is historically interesting, being about logging and the clearing of forests in French Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries. But grieving for these deceased characters, without replacing them with equally or even more interesting ones, got the best of me and I couldn’t continue.

Are there lessons to be learned from all of this? Just a few. The main one is that the appreciation of writing is highly subjective – something I try to remind myself of every time I get a rejection from a publisher.  The other involves the need to give up. Reading shouldn’t be a competition, even with oneself. Giving up on reading a book is not the same as giving up on writing one, especially if what I’m reading isn’t entertaining or helping me to grow as a person.