Escapist Books

The last time I looked at the news, there was an earthquake in central Italy and women being stripped on the beach in France.  And my son asking “who is that little boy?” (the 5 year-old devastated Syrian bombing victim).  Even some of the books I’ve read lately have taken an unflinching (brave, and beautifully written) look at war and oppression – I’m looking at you Girl at War and Do Not Say We Have Nothing.  Agh!  We need to escape sometimes: VEEP and Lillehammer are my television souffles, but I do like a good book.  Simon and Thomas of The Readers podcast have read my mind and discussed escapist reads recently.  I was inspired to make a list …

Two rules are at play: 1) it can be as light as light as can be, but must be well-written.  I want to feel inspired by an author smarter than me, not cringe at cliches or clunky phrasing: No 50 Shades of Gray. 2) nothing too challenging. No War and Peace or Narrow Road to the Deep North (both excellent though).

It’s a tricky balance – I have huge respect for authors who manage it. On the other hand, I agree with Thomas – any book that draws you in and entertains you can be a good escape.

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  1. P.G. Wodehouse: fail-safe, timeless, always lifts my spirits.  In the words of Evelyn Waugh, his “idyllic world can never stale”.  Harmless but genius writing.  This article in the New Yorker explains some of the appeal. We visited Sydenham Hill Wood recently and the guide map said “The Pond .. supports dragonflies and newts” – just the word newt made me laugh, conjuring up Gussie Fink-Nottle.  You must read his speech at Market Snodsbury Grammar School, in Right Ho, Jeeves.
  2. Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): escape to outer space, brilliantly conceived. Funny, masterful, another genius.
  3. A good detective story: Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers for classic English crime.  Recently I’ve discovered Judith Flanders, who does a great a great crime caper (Murder of Magpies).  Boris Akunin has been compared with Sherlock Holmes but has a comic Russian element.  And Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series (starting with Death at La Fenice) blends crime, Venice and food – what’s not to love?  A good setting can be key.  By good I mean not war-torn; ideally a grand hotel by the sea, a bucolic village or a cultural European capital.
  4. Another recent discovery: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner.  I felt like I was holidaying in a resort by the lake (funny, that), breathing crisp mountain air and Edith was in my ear whispering her observations about the guests.  There is some depth and sadness, but it’s treated with a light touch.  The quality of the writing is absorbing enough to block out the read world.
  5. Speaking of mittel-Europe, Stefan Zweig – he wrote during troubling times but he illuminates small incidents, details and characters with a humane sensibility and a reassuring tone – as if someone is simply confiding a story. My favourite is The Royal Game, a novella that takes place on a cruise: short in length, an escapist setting, tick, tick!
  6. 41NEReoBC6L._SX304_BO1,204,203,200_The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjoberg.  Sjoberg collects hoverflies on a remote island in Sweden. Somehow this is one of the most comforting, wise books I have read. I highly recommend it.
  7. Which brings us to Scandinavia: Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is everything.
  8. Another means of escape is a sweeping story to immerse yourself in.  Some of my favourites are: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (so excited for her next book The Good People due in October); The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. All have a strong sense of place too, so you really can enter into another world. Bliss!
  9. Actual travel, anyone? I love the travel writing of Dickens, and the slim volume On Travel is full of insights and funny scenes, with his sense of theatre and comedy. Edith Wharton’s Cruise of the Vanadis is a beautiful book and cover.jpg.rendition.460.707leisurely escape – relax with a coffee and enjoy the Meditterranean islands and Wharton’s eye for detail. Bill Bryson’s early travel writing is clever and entertaining. And for 1970s New York, the The Andy Warhol Diaries are a revelation: fun and name-droppy to dip in and out of, or a full literature experience with Warhol as the protagonist.
  10. Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: John Wood’s memoir about starting Room to Read is an antidote to the ‘world problems are overwhelming’ blues.  Wood – a self-confessed library nerd and avid reader – is funny, engaging and optimistic. The message: world change starts with educated children.  The good news?  He is on it.

What are your favourite escapist books?

The Vegetarian and Captain Fantastic

My idea of becobook-mos_051716011026ming vegetarian is cooking greens from Ottolenghi’s Plenty or Annabel Crabb’s Special Delivery, forsaking Parmigiano Reggiano and eating lentils, to bask in the glow of a healthy new lifestyle (I couldn’t do it: I subscribe to Michael Pollan‘s dictum ‘meat as flavour’).  Not for me, then but it’s a respectable choice in the cities I call home – London and Adelaide – increasingly common, and the waiter won’t turn up their nose if you order the leek tart instead of a steak.

Not so in Korea, or at least not for Yeong-hye in The Vegetarian (by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith). Her story is a noir film to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Disney macrobiotics.

The book is challenging not because Yeong-hye gives up meat but because she is taciturn and unsympathetic.  Her husband is unlikeable from the first line and there is something creepy about almost sympathising with him in the face of Yeong-hye’s stubborness.  Here is her husband starting the story (note he does not refer to her by name):

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. …

However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially refined, suited me down to the ground.”

Yeong-hye turns vegetarian and in so doing, turns away from society.  Her husband and family do not understand her choice, nor does she explain it, except to say “I had a dream.” She closes her mouth figuratively and literally, against their attempts to force-feed her:

“This time, my mother-in-law picked up some sweet and sour pork with her chopsticks and thrust it right up in front of my wife’s mouth, saying ‘Here. Come on, hurry up and eat.’ Mouth closed, my wife stared at her mother as though entirely ignorant of the rules of etiquette.”

She behaves without regard to social niceties and we are left to wonder what her motives are and why she seems to be at war with her body.  At a business dinner her husband notes:

“But the demure, apologetic smile which was the only reasonable response never came, and without even having the grace to look embarrassed, my wife stared baldly at my boss’s wife.  That stare appalled everyone present. … What shadowy recesses lurked in her mind, what secrets I’d never suspected? In that moment, she was utterly unknowable.”

Whilst the husband and his colleagues come across and selfish and shallow, his words contain a truth: Han Kang has made Yeong-hye quite unknowable and leaves the reader to understand her, and people who challenge accepted norms, as best we can.  (Her husband fails this test).

By the end of Part 1 I could relate to the husband’s view – this shows the strength of the writing because he is an unimpressive character who does not emerge well from the story.

It’s interesting how affronted we are (me, her family) by Yeong-hye’s rejection of social mores – shown by her withdrawal from food and conversation and from her husband (“The meat smell. Your body smells of meat,” she tells him).

A better husband might offer her support or treat it like an illness – his wife as a convalescent – or simply let her be. But her conversion reveals that they never understood each other.  She seems to hate her body – feeling it murderous – but cannot escape it – causing huge torment and tragedy.

Part 2 focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, who is presented as a selfish man neglecting his family in pursuit of his art.

“He spent hours seemingly lost in a daydream, mulling over how to make the image become a reality.”

He is willing to sacrifice all for his art and exists outside the ‘norm’ in the artistic realm. There is a fine line between unhinged and creative.

Finally we explore her sister’s life. In-hye is a dutiful, diligent wife and mother, always thinking of others and supporting the family with her career.  The irony, or tragedy, of the tale is that Yeong-hye and her brother-in-law have been true to themselves and pursue their destiny even when it is destructive, while In-hye lives for others, conforms to all of society’s demands and expectations, but does not know herself.

“She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

There is much else in the third section but I won’t give it away for fear of plot spoilers.

Perhaps one lesson to be drawn is that a society made up of indivuals is going to be messy. How much should people conform to general rules of behaviour (and what to do with people who cannot or will not do so)?

Or is Kang saying: our instinct is to look after people when they are hurting or starving themselves, we want to fix it, but just let them be.  Would that be fair though to friends and family – is it OK for Yeong-hye to opt out?

Captain-Fantastic-poster (1)Hard to believe, but my musings on The Vegetarian led to a movie I saw the same week, premiering at Somerset House, Captain Fantastic.

Viggo Mortensen plays a father who has opted out, raising 6 children in the wild with home schooling and survival skills – a boot camp that makes a mockery of both my feeble attempts at exercise (I don’t want to know how long they held that plank for) and the M&Ms I ate throughout the film.  Viggo Mortensen is superb: his pathos, blunt tactlessness and love for his children hit the mark.

The family is dragged into the city when their mother dies – there is a telling scene with his sister’s family with two typical teenage boys and the full range of modern parenting:  the parents are alarmed at the frank discussion of Leslie’s death; they try to cover the truth with “She was sick and … she died” lest their boys are disturbed; these same boys are seen shortly afterwards playing violent video games.

Leslie’s father is horrified at the children being raised outside the education system (despite their precocious knowledge of the Bill of Rights) and wielding knives.  Matt Ross’s clever writing means we sympathise with both sides, although the parents are presented as narrow-minded.

It raises the question again, is it OK to ‘opt out’ of modern society?  Can you give your children the best education with honesty and without the dangers of modern life, and is that valid? Should more people do it?

And what is a father’s obligation: to be true to himself (= live in the wild) and/or is that best for the children?

The  kids seem happy in the movie and the love of their parents the supremely important thing – tick, tick so far. So long as they have choices at the age of 18 (nearly denied to the eldest) they will be fine.

This debate goes back to Plato and answers vary today from country to country. My view is that home education beyond age 8 or 9 cannot prepare children for living and working every day with a group of people who are different: the interpersonal skills, dealing with adversity and the opportunity to learn from their peers (other points of view!) best prepare young people for the real world.  On the other hand I can understand parents wanting to shield their children from the often brutal school environment.

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707And not every school fulfills its promise. The topic arose too in The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks (Twitter sensation), where a school in the farming community both set low expectations of its students and told them to ‘aim higher’ than farming and apply for university, thus alienating a whole group of capable young people and turning them off education completely. I’ve taught at a small area school in a farming district in South Australia where farm life was incorporated into the curriculum and the school encouraged academic success in its students: a flexible approach can help.  I hope this has changed in Northern England and it is vital that rural schools are well funded and attract good teachers.

Intelligence comes in many forms.

 

 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien; Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos

I once tutored a Chinese student in English and when I asked him what he thought of 30761967Australia, he said “Most people are nice – there are a few barbarians .”  At the time I thought, wild savages – that’s a colourful way to describe the less civil members of Adelaide society.  I didn’t realise that in China, ‘barbarian’ means ‘foreigner’, someone who has not yet been assimilated into the Chinese culture.

These books brought home to me how much we still don’t understand about China, the truth of the Mao years and what it means to live there today.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a devastating story, beautifully told.  It centers on three characters – Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli – as they grow up during the Cultural Revolution, famine and the Great Leap Forward.  These years are physically tortuous – many are broken by the sheer hardship, work camps and hunger (36 million people starved to death in the great famine).  “There are many stages to hunger” says Comrade Glass Eye.

The futility of these camps struck me again. Equally cruel and absurd were the criticisms and self-censorship; the repetition of Mao’s slogans, which becomes mindless.  Ordinary people live in fear of being denounced as counter-revolutionary, not knowing what the Party will pick on next.  Zhuli cuts her hair short because a long braid might be vain. A woman is yanked out of the queue for oil:

” ‘It must be her clothing,’ thought Zhuli dully, that had attracted the fury of the Red Guards.”

The backwardness of shutting the schools and universities still shocks me. Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli are musicians, and as their passion for playing and composing music is gradually snuffed out and driven inward, you have a real sense of how the party stifled creativity: books were burnt, instruments destroyed.

Music pervades the book nonetheless; it may inspire you to listen to Bach, Shostakovich or Prokofiev anew.  Thien draws attention to the gaps within the music: characters in the story disappear, some return; the Book of Records is told in fragments, hidden and shared.  The music evokes lives interrupted, dreams crushed, but a strange beauty too.

The Party shut down certain renowned composers deemed ‘Western’ or ‘bourgeouis’.  But it also affects the young students, who learn not to trust their own thoughts: they second-guess everything and default to the ‘correct’ music. Worse, the Party changed its dictates so the sands shifted.

“Now the class turned their attention to the playwright, Wu, and the poet, Guo.  Both men, once celebrated, had been discovered to be enemies of the people.”

(The same fate befell Ai Wei Wei’s father, the poet Ai Qing.)

This leads to a constant, unsettling state of fear.  We experience this sense of unease through Kai, a pragmatic and adaptible character. When he is with Zhuli:

“He had switched gears as smoothly as a bird circling, as unequivocally as a madman.”

Ordinary citizens had to denounce friends and family to protect themselves.  In a heart-wrenching scene, against the backdrop of the family’s fierce love for one another, Zhuli’s cousin must denounce her on a poster.

“Da Shan smudged the ink, and his father threw out the poster and made him do it again.”

The Party turned its own people against one another.  There is a chilling scene where He Lutong, president of the Shanghai Conservatory, is beaten on live television.  He dares to resist, crying “Shame on you for lying!” and the screens go blank.

From the 1960s to Age of Ambition, and Evan Osnos offers a modern example: a historic meeting between the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents, where the Chinese speech was broadcast but when it was Taiwan’s turn to speak, the screen went black.

18490568Age of Ambition takes us into modern China with Osnos, who lived there for 8 years from 2006 to 2014.  We meet wonderful characters: among them, brave Hu Shuli the news editor, a Crazy English teacher and Ai Wei Wei, an artist who, like Andy Warhol, has become famous  not for his art alone but for his knack of distilling events into a work with mass appeal.

Osnos finds people searching for faith since Mao’s death.  There is a focus on economic growth and some nostalgia for a communal spirit – shown tragically when two-year-old Fui Wei is run over in the market and people walk past her.

The unspoken bargain is that people will postpone idealism as long as life keeps improving.  There is massive corruption, but the young generation has turned a blind eye, although this is shaken by major events such as the Sichuan earthquake, milk poisoning and high-speed train crash.  There is censorship, the notorious “Great Firewall”, but blogger Han Han says to let the culture be more vibrant and the media be more open – he does not seek democracy.

Osnos refers to Havel’s Charter 77 (it inspired Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08).  The key to life under a Communist party was to have a double life: “the willingness to say one thing in public and another in private.”

In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the Professor reads from Guo Moruo’s translation of Faust:

“In me there are two souls, alas, and their / Division tears my life in two.”

After reading Thien’s poignant book, I have more sympathy both for those in China agitating for democracy and those who do not seek another revolution.  I can only admire the pragmatism and resilience of those who survive and the courage of those who resist.

But what do I know – I’m just a barbarian.

 

 

Accidental Russia Binge

This is the excerpt for your very first post.

I have a friend who is studying Russian history in his spare time, in competition with his father (an eminent judge) – that’s one way to focus your mind on a hobby in between crazy working hours (grrr over-achievers)!  I’ve come at it sideways, starting with Masha Gessen’s excellent The Man Without a Face , then tackling the rollicking The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore and now it seems 2016 is the year of reading Russian novels.

Strangely, I’ve never been to Russia and have no plans to go, but I’m bizarrely fascinated its literature.

My current read is A Woman Loved by Andrei Makine.  This was recommended to me by Sarah at South Seas Books, a gorgeous store in Port Elliot, South Australia.  It’s graced my bookshelf for 7 months, so long overdue to read (but not the longest that books have languished in my shelves before reading – does anyone else have this problem?) … It centres on Oleg, who is making a film about Catherine the Great – a wonderful character – but will she reveal herself or will he perpetuate the myths that surround her reign?

So far I’m enjoying it but finding much of the discussion about Russian politics, while illuminating and beautifully put, a little remote.

Here you can see the inadvertant Russian theme developing in my stack of books bought and (some) read in 2016:

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“War and Peace”: Do you see that big boy at the bottom of the stack?  Yes, finished! (cue applause and champagne / vodka).  I read this recently so I could watch the BBC series.  Found it heavy in every sense but enjoyed the full immersion into Russia and the Napoleonic wars, and admire it as an incredible achievement (including by Tolstoy’s wife, who transcribed it numerous times).  It makes other novels seem rushed and superficial.

“A Journey to the End of the Russian Empire”: unexpectedly fun and readable; also perfect size to take out and about in a small handbag.

“The Double”: tackling Dostoyevsky again after an earlier failed attempt.  I’m interested in doubles and doppelgangers.

“Young Stalin”: to see what makes a tyrant.  Still topical unfortunately.

“Murder on the Leviathan”: I love escaping into Boris Akunin’s detective stories: a mix of Victorian era Russia, farce and mystery.  I first heard him speaking on the BBC World Book Club and was intrigued.

Teffi: I was enchanted by her short stories, elegant and deceptively light.  Witty and pithy translation by Robert Chandler; also her memoirs (not pictured) speak of 1917 Russia with a light touch, bittersweet.

Do you ever find unexpected themes in your reading?