To Autumn

No political metaphors here. I just wanted to say something about my favourite season. There have been many great poems in English about autumn, its imagery well exploited. Even though its symbolism has found its way into idiom – the autumn of our lives – I’m still moved by it.

Perhaps there is some nostalgia at work here. I first read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem in primary school and remember the experience largely because it was autumn at the time. It is favourite season by far. It brought words to the images I saw outside the classroom window:

Thou comest, Autumn, heralded by the rain,

With banners, by great gales incessant fanned.

At the same time it fed my escapist’s fantasies, adding scenes and aromas of a rural idyll far removed from anything I had seen in Chicago:

Thy steps are by the farmer’s prayers attended;
Like flames upon an altar shine the sheaves;
And, following thee, in thy ovation splendid,
Thine almoner, the wind, scatters the golden leaves!

At secondary school, I discovered Keats’ often quoted ‘Ode To Autumn’ (‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…’) and a glut of other writers taking up the subject – Edna St Vincent Malay, Carl Sandburg, William Blake, Katherine Mansfield, to name a few.

Contemporary poets have also borrowed from this season, either as a subject in itself or as a leitmotif. But these works appear far and few between. Is it that urban landscapes have replaced rural ones for the majority of the world’s population? Or do we comment about it more visually with computers? Instead of poetry, my Facebook friends and I have often posted photos of our gardens or nearby countryside and city parks in the autumn months.

As a short-story writer, I pay my respects to the season by having the occasional character slip on wet leaves or take in the bright red-brown spectrum of colours or inhale the scents of dried lawns and wood-burning fireplaces. As I can’t paint or draw, here I reproduce Klimt’s The Beech Forest, alongside my photos of Ely at this time year. But whatever I do, I fear it pales next to the real thing. As with my childhood, autumn still provides escape, only now I take these meditative moments to allow my brain a rest from the toxic illiberal world we live in – political, but not a metaphor.

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Greek Tragedies and Shamsie’s Home Fire

Occasionally, I plunge into a book without any foreknowledge – no reviews, no jacket blurbs (thanks to Kindle), no personal recommendations. I added Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire to my Kindle collection solely on the basis that it had won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018.

In brief, the story is set in Britain’s Pakistani community at a time when Britain has its first Muslim Home Secretary (the book went to press before MP Sajid Javid became Home Secretary – a fortuitous coincidence). The Secretary’s son gets involved with a young woman whose twin brother, desperate to learn about their dead jihadi father, has left the UK to join ISIS. As the narration weaves its plot, it reflects on the nature of grieving and the power of loss alongside the machinations of our 24-hour media.

When one of the principle characters dies (no spoiler here) the reaction from one of the other characters is fierce and edges on melodrama. At that point in my reading I started to think about this as a Greek tragedy. Then the unburied corpse appeared. Lightbulb – this is a retelling of Antigone. For me, this realisation happened well into the novel. That, I think, is a good sign. The story reads as something very modern and gratefully without all of the self-righteous suicides of Sophocles’ original play – apologies to classicists.

This modern-day Antigone veers from the original in several other ways, which really would be a spoiler to talk about. But I will say this, unlike other versions (Brecht, Anouilh, etc.), this one has a cracking sense of humour that I wouldn’t have expected had I been told about the book and its themes beforehand. Clever banter between the characters, especially the adult twins who jibe each other in text messages, keeps the story pacey and the tragic elements more shocking and poignant.greek tragedies 2

Of course, by reading this blog, you won’t have the same lightbulb going on in your head somewhere in the middle of the story. But in our time of online reviews, book groups and reader talk, you probably would have heard it from someone anyhow.

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout

I’ve probably said too often that I prefer the Man Booker shortlist over the winner. But not for 2016. Thanks to Ely Public Library, I’ve finally caught up with the list, arriving at The Sellout by Paul Beatty. It’s brilliant social satire. The premise says it all – an African-American man becomes a slave-owner and brings back segregation in an effort to put his town back on the map.

There are many quotable passages, but I’ll just share a few: ‘They say, “pimpin’ ain’t easy.” Well, neither is slaveholdin’. Like children, dogs, dice, and overpromising politicians, and apparently prostitutes, slaves don’t do what you tell them to do.’ And ‘No one other than college hippies, Negro jubilee singers, Cubs fans and other assorted idealists knows verses two through six of “We Shall Overcome”…’ Growing up as a Chicago Cubs’ fan makes this one especially poignant. He – we never get the name of the narrator – explains the true reason why the Supreme Court doesn’t allow cameras. ‘It’s to protect the country from seeing what’s underneath Plymouth Rock. Because the Supreme Court takes out its dick and tits and decides who’s going to get fucked and who’s going to get a taste of mother’s milk.’

The novel manages references to contemporary pop culture, along side more scholarly descriptions involving, Piaget, Skinner, Goddard and Tennyson, to name a few. It’s a thoughtful read that masquerades as a page-turning comedy. One of my favourite comic novelists is Stephen Fry and, although Beatty has a more satirical edge, there are some overtones of Fry’s style and erudition in Beatty’s work.

While the comic asides fill the book, it still has solid plot and character development. It reminded me of the also marvellous BBC comedy-drama Fleabag, written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. We see a character warts and all as they stumble through life dealing with the rawness of their sexual encounters, their awkward familial relationships and close, yet ambiguous friendships while up against a world they are constantly at odds with. Like Fleabag, The Sellout, keeps its audience aware that the protagonist is a product of our present-day society.  And like coming to the end of Fleabag, The Sellout left me wanting more.

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Carl Jung and Writing ‘New Shoes’

‘New Shoes’ began as an early chapter in my second unpublished novel, introducing my protagonist at a low point in her life. She’d been fired from her job. Aside from the humiliation of being sacked, she had to deal with the culture of unemployment – anxiety about job interviews, rejection, the loss colleagues and the worst thing of all – daytime television.

This is a story about work-related identities, a term I would use now, after about a dozen rewrites over the course of two decades. No one said writing was easy. Back when the story was a novel chapter, I thought of it as being about Jungian archetypes. I was living in Washington DC and it was the mid-nineties. In academia and new age thinking, Jungian psychology was all the rage and it found its way into literary and cultural criticism, which I was teaching at the time. And if that weren’t enough, Joseph Campbell had taken Jung and turned him into an industry through the PBS television series The Power of Myth, which of course came with a best-selling book. An offshoot of this can be found in the fiction writers’ bible The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.

‘New Shoes’ looks at changing one’s role in life and identity in Jungian terms. The visually-impaired old lady fulfils the mentor archetype. As Karena goes down her hallway looking for the old women, she comes across other archetypes and rejects them – or they reject her. The characters on the television, presented as two-dimensional, are also archetypal, pandering to an audience of types of people (rather than individuals). The somewhat open-ended conclusion stresses the importance of the process over the outcome. In Jungian-based psychotherapy, the emphasis is on the process of self-discovery, which is often aided by the analysis of dreams. Neither Karena nor the reader knows if she’s dreaming in parts of the story.

Over the years, only a couple of people who have read the story and commented on it have picked up on the Jungian references. But that’s okay. I’m reminded of the scholar who spent years analysing and writing about Shoeless Joe and its screenplay adaptation Field of Dreams, as explorations of Jungian psychology. It makes loads of sense to me with a story so obviously full of symbolism. When the scholar met the author of Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella, and asked about the Jungian influences, Kinsella had no idea what the scholar was talking about.

Summer Reading 2018

If you’re expecting light-weight, page-turners for the beach, you’ve come to the wrong blogger. For reasons unknown, I like thematic and/or challenging reading over the hot months when I don’t usually have writing deadlines and my colleagues and students are on extended breaks.

A couple of years ago I had an Isherwood summer, rereading Goodbye to Berlin and reading for the first time a couple of volumes of memoirs surrounding that time period in Isherwood’s life. I escaped into that world quite easily, making it one of my more memorable reading summers.

This summer hasn’t followed a theme, but has been a time to catch up with books people have passed on to me and those Kindle books that I picked up on sale and forget that I had them. The summer started with Jonathan Franzen’s hefty novel Purity. This dark comedy is like other Franzen novels, very much a mocking reflection of our times. It interweaves seven overlapping sections of narrative into one story of surveillance culture, social media paranoia and clumsy sex. While I did internally chuckle along the way, I was uneasy at times with his often psychologically weak and yet manipulative female characters.

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After that 500+ pager, I needed a novella. Lionel Shriver’s The Standing Chandelier is an excellent study on the psychology of relationships. It stands off a plutonic friendship with a former lover against the relationship that will end up in marriage. While Shriver exercises precision in her word-choice and descriptions, I felt it was in places a bit overwritten, with too much telling analysis, rather than showing and allowing readers to draw the conclusions for themselves. But still a worthwhile and thankfully short read.

Catching-up with my booklist has meant that I’m finally reading Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. I’m not overtaken by the story-within-the-story, and since most of you have probably already read this, you’ll know what I mean. But the main story, set in the early part of summer reading 2018-3 the 20th century in Canada, is exquisitely written and fully engaging.

I confess that I read a book earlier this summer that for some might be deemed a beach read. Wendy Cope’s collection of prose, Life, Love and the Archers, can be read in bitesize segments, which I guess qualify it for the interrupted reading associated with beaches and sitting out in the garden. Like her poetry, her prose is accessible, thought-provoking and often humorous.

Another beach book of sorts on this season’s eclectic menu is Antoine Compagnon’s collection of vignettes from the 16th century philosopher Montaigne, couched in Compagnon’s historical and biographical commentary. Even the title suggests summertime beach reading – Un été avec Montaigne. That is, summer reading if you’re French. I’m having to look up the occasional modern French word and use context and basic Latin to guess some meanings of archaic terms. Language aside, it’s been interesting to learn that Montaigne was ahead of his time in being an anti-colonialist, drawing attention to the barbarism and oppression Europeans brought to Africa and the Americas. His comments on gender fluidity and hermaphroditism also read as if from a more 21st century liberal-minded time.

So, those are the highlights of the summer book reading, naturally sandwiched between newspapers, online magazines and short stories. Happy reading and stay cool (in every sense of the word).

Lincoln in the Bardo

With few exceptions, the Man Booker Prize winner is not as good as half of its shortlist. I’m afraid for me George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo follows this rule. I say this with some hesitation because I’ve enjoyed Saunders’s short stories over the years and because at times the writing in Lincoln is nothing less than brilliant.

Lincoln in the Bardo deals with the true-life story of the death Willie Lincoln, son of the famous president. An exploration of grieving and beliefs about death, it’s set primarily in the bardo – a concept taken from Tibetan Buddhism for an intermediate state between death and rebirth.  In this bardo the reader encounters several subplots with a host of fictional (and some fictionalised) characters of which the child Willie Lincoln is one.

Outside of the bardo lies the real world, told through the accounts of present-day historians and journals and memoirs of those living at the time. This genre mixing is a clever way of telling a story. But in order for it to work, the disparate parts, with their different voices and styles, need to be of roughly equal merit. For me, the accounts of Lincoln’s contemporaries were far more moving and interesting than the lives of most of the characters in the bardo. I found myself speed reading through the bardo in order to arrive at and savour the non-fiction passages.

The blending of fiction with non-fiction is an art. True mastery of this art formSaunders 1 can be found in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Digging up the Bones and closer to the non-fiction end of the scale in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. While Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo hasn’t reached its ambitions, it’s still a better, more innovative, read than much of what’s out there.

Writing Essays

This was supposed to be a writer’s blog, writing about my writing and others’ writings. But other aspects of life have funnelled in – politics, feminism, visual arts. I make no apology. What brings all of these disparate parts together is actually essay writing. Blogs for me are a warm-up activity, a brain and language stretch for writing essays.

Before I write another word, I should explain that by ‘essay’ I mean creative non-fiction. What I don’t mean, for those of you who have searched #essay writing and landed here, is the formulaic student essay – that academic rag of assessment that takes all of the fun out of essay writing.

Without the structural constraints or the timeliness needed for newspaper articles or columnists’ pieces, essays can have a more varied existence. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard once said ‘The essay is, and has been, all over the map. There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed.’

Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard

In some of my essays, I’ve worked within an overriding chronological story-telling, but without fictional characters to get in my way and with space for more philosophical ideas than I can get away with in fiction. With other essays, I’ve used more of a mini-collection style, with each vignette on the same theme and some indirectly answering to other vignettes. I try to not ramble in my essays. Perhaps it’s because I ramble in my journals or perhaps because I fear the work won’t get published – being mistaken for bad writing.

That reminds me of something I read a few years ago in Prospect Magazine: ‘The essay is more than an assembly of literary conventions: it ought to be an examination of the facts of the world. This has become clearer with the emergence of new technologies, which threaten to deprofessionalise one of the main historical strands of the essay, the egotistical ramble.’ (P. Hensher)

Aside from the above comment about rambling, this quote is also interesting for its inclusion of ‘facts.’ One thing I’ve learned from writing essays over the years is that while they are not fictional, their ownership of ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ is a bit slippery. I write about what I know to be factual at the time, sometimes having to rely on elusive memories that I’m aware are from my viewpoint. I choose to write about some facts and not others because this fact or that fact has been meaningful to me.

My favourite essayists have been mostly male. In part this is because men are more likely to have collections of essays published as single volumes. I’m thinking Gore Vidal and Clive James. I suspect this has its origins in the essays of the great Western philosophers. Women’s essays appear more often in anthology form along side other authors, such as the works of Rachel Carson and Margaret Atwood (underrated as an essayist).  I’ve noticed the trend too of the rare collection by a single female author being labled ‘women’s writing’ or ‘feminism.’

Well, if I’m going to buck this trend, I had better stop by rambling – I’ve exercised enough with this blog – and get on with essay writing.


Reading Lolita in Tehran

Even though I’ve done research into reading groups, until recently I hadn’t read Azar Nafisi’s best-seller Reading Lolita in Tehran. While it’s not an academic source for me to cite, it does confirm what the research has found. Simply put, reading is a social activity. We might read a book in a room or on public transport in our own little worlds, but then we talk about books and we integrate our experience of books into our social lives.

Reading Lolita in Tehran uses the reading group, along with classrooms of university students, as vehicles to describe how the revolution in Iran has affected its people, especially its women. It details stories of injustice and oppression in the lives of Nafisi, her students and colleagues, taking readers through the uprisings against the West and the Iran-Iraq war to the post-war period followed by the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the attempts at liberalising that continue today. (Bearing in mind, the book was published in 2003.)

The reverence for literature permeates throughout this memoir. Along with Lolita, the author covers Daisy Miller, The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice, showing how she and her students reacted to these works. In her own responses, Nafisi provides some passages of literary criticism of the type that reminded me of my years of teaching literature to undergraduates.   Reading Lolita 2

I’m glad that I’ve finally caught up with Reading Lolita and hope to find other such books obviously written for Western audiences that contribute to understanding the Middle East in a modern context.

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.

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.

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