All The Light We Cannot See

I’m getting overwhelm from all the political news and my disappointment in the human race. So coming across a book that transports and delights me enough to block all that out is a rare, and fortuitous, find indeed. It sat on my bookcase for a while, borrowed from a friend, until I picked it up last weekend. Usually I can devour a book in a few days but I haven’t got very far with this one, about a quarter of the way through the story, because I’m savouring the words so much. I want to spend time with them, read them aloud, then read them again.

Written by Anthony Doerr the novel is set in France and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Its main characters are a blind French girl who learns to navigate her town with the help of a miniature replica made by her father, and a German orphan who is destined for work in the mines until it’s discovered he can mend broken radios. As the novel, and the war, progress, their paths draw ever closer together. But it is the radiancy of  prose that grips me as much as the plot.

It opens on 7 August 1944 with:

At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.

The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.”

Then:

“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama. The sea glides far below, spattered by the countless chevrons of whitecaps. Soon enough, the navigators can discern the low moonlit lumps of islands ranged along the horizon.

France.

Intercoms crackle. Deliberately, almost lazily, the bombers shed altitude. Threads of light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast. Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns. On an outermost island, panicked sheep run zig-zagging between rocks.

Inside each airplane, a bombardier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty. Four five six seven. To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”

Each short chapter alternates between French  and German perspectives and sections alternate between the past and the present of the tale. Neither the girl nor the boy fit in with their people or surroundings, and the war, as beautifully written as it is,  is still war and its stark realities don’t escape us.

If you love exquisite writing that transforms the ephemera of daily existence in a story much more than a conventional war tale, you’ll love this novel. It was the Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015 and is well deserved of that title.

“This jewel of a story is put together like a vintage timepiece…Doerr’s writing and imagery are stunning. It’s been a while since a novel had me under its spell in this fashion” Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone.

I second that.

 

 

 

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Between Birth and Death

These are troubled days and as it is St Valentine’s Day this week I thought a little escapism into love would do me good. However, for those of us without a significant other, this time of year with the roses and cards can be painful, or seem crass. For me it’s the latter. So I decided to look for the positives.

Trying to establish the facts about St Valentine proved to be more difficult that I thought. Apparently there have been up to five Valentine’s accredited with being the saint but the Roman Martyrology, the Catholic Church’s official list of recognised saints, for February 14 gives only one Saint Valentine; a martyr who died on the Via Flaminia.

So why has Valentine’s feast day has been celebrated as a lovers’ holiday and a day of romance since the 14th century? Some say the date was thought to be the beginning of the mating season for birds. Others say it is because the church wanted to Christianise an ancient Roman pagan festival called Lupercalia, which centred around fertility and purification.Whatever the explanation and whoever is the real Valentine, we have in the western world an annual celebration of romantic love on February 14th.

Some people look to the Bible for inspiration about Love. I look to Khalil Gibran, Paolo Cuelho and Don Miguel Ruiz who each in The Prophet, The Alchemist and The Mastery of Love respectively, use a master talking to and teaching a crowd of people about Love. My favourite is The Prophet, possibly because I discovered it first at a time when I needed it and we always hold our first loves a little more tightly.

Almustafa, the Prophet,  is about to leave the city of Orphalese. He has waited twelve years for a ship and when one arrives the people gather round, desperate for last words of wisdom before he leaves, to tell him “all that has been shown you of that which is between birth and death.”

He is asked to speak about Love and exhorts the people assembled before him:

“When love beckons to you, follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to you roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.”

Not for him the slushy, chocolate box fiction of romantic love. He portrays love’s stark reality of light and shade, pleasure and pain, its catharticism.

When asked about Marriage he says:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from the same cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

So many elderly couples I know do everything together and take great pride in this, in never having had a cross word, of thinking and breathing the same way. It may work for them, and each to their own, but for me that kind of relationship seems claustrophobic, lifeless. The merging of two people into one is often written to describe finding one’s ‘soul mate’ but to me a soul mate is one who helps your soul sing its own tune in harmony with theirs, not get it to sing the same notes.

Someone recently commented that none of my characters in fiction are happily married or in successful relationships. I hadn’t noticed it before, but she’s right. I suppose as a writer I’ve brought my own experiences to my work and haven’t seen many examples of what I would say were ‘successful’ relationships. The couples involved might describe their relationships as successful, but seen by me, the outsider, they are too full of compromise, to the point where the individual has vanished. But I guess it’s all down to perceptions and the choices we make.

So whatever your status and views on love this Valentine’s Day, I wish you peace and joy.

“This day has ended. It is closing upon us even as the water-lily upon its own tomorrow. What was given us here we shall keep, And if it suffices not, then again must we come together and together stretch our hands unto the giver”

 

 

Slavery

I’m looking forward to watching the new adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family that is being aired on TV soon. So when I was checking this day in history I found it interesting that on 6 Feb 1820 the first organized immigration of freed slaves to Africa from the United States departed New York harbour on a journey to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in West Africa. This was largely the work of the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 by Robert Finley, to return freed American slaves to Africa after abolition.

Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent and sold into slavery in the US, and later follows his life and the lives of his descendants in the United States down to Haley. Boosted by the popular TV adaptation in 1977 it spent months on The New York Times Best Sellers List, including 22 weeks in the top spot. However, it was not without its own controversy. Haley was accused of plagiarism and after a trial and out-of-court settlement Haley admitted that some passages had been copied from Harold Courlander’s work, The African, which was published nine years earlier.

Plagiarism is serious offence as writers hold their intellectual property dear. However, it’s worth noting that “Edward Kosner, reviewing the volume Alex Haley by Robert J. Norrell, said that Haley “could have avoided all the grief if he and his publishers had simply labeled the book [Roots] what it was—a historical novel valid in its essential narrative but informed by the imagination”. Wikipedia

Yet despite all its controversy it remains a powerful piece of work considered to be one of the most important U.S. works of the 20th century and has greatly influenced the interest in genealogy and appreciation for African American history.

A slave is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as :

  1. a person who is the legal property of another and is bound to absolute obedience
  2. a drudge; a person working very hard
  3. a helpless victim of some dominating influence
  4. a machine, or part of one, directly controlled by another

It’s appalling that we still have them today in all these forms, and I think the most common in the western world is the slave to dominating influences.

Published on this day in 1937 was another influential book, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. The story of the bond between two itinerant workers, slaves to the dominating influence of  the American Depression, disappointed in the American Dream, who drift from place to place to find work.

“Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.” (1.113)

The American Dream, the national ethos of the US, is rooted in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” First defined by James Truslow Adams in 1931 the American Dream promises “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. Yet the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Depression saw that Dream slowly turn to dust, like the dust bowls of the mid-west, and her people blown about like tumbleweed.

But Lennie and George still have their dreams:

Lennie watched him with wide eyes, and old Candy watched him too. Lennie said softly, “We could live offa the fatta the lan’.”

“Sure,” said George. “All kin’s a vegetables in the garden, and if we want a little whisky we can sell a few eggs or something, or some milk. We’d jus’ live there. We’d belong there. There wouldn’t be no more runnin’ round the country and gettin’ fed by a Jap cook. No, sir, we’d have our own place where we belonged and not sleep in no bunk house.” (3.202-203)

Everyone needs dreams to escape from the drudgery of life, particularly when you’re poor and other people/systems/laws/attitudes seem in control of your life. We’re hearing a lot of talk of ‘Make America Great Again’ which is feeding the dreams of many people disillusioned  by years of being unheard/ignored. But dreams at the expense of others become castles built on sand. They eventually collapse. And if we’re lucky, a boat will come to take us back home, back to our roots.

 

 

Silent Spring

It’s spring. Snowdrops have been out for a while, their pristine white heads bobbing in the winds, the green of their stalks rising up out of the crustiness of frost and snow. Spring is the time for hope, the start of a new cycle of re-birth, yet it has been another depressing week.

Listening to the news, watching the Trump machine bulldozing its way over human rights and decency and Theresa May toadying up to him hasn’t helped my mood. Nor has the recognition that 27 Jan was International Holocaust Remembrance Day and today is the 70th anniversary of Ghandi’s assassination. Life is always moving, is in a state of perpetual change, but some of these changes I can do without. They indicate that we have learnt nothing despite the murder of millions of people who happened to believe or worship differently to others, and we seem to be turning full circle to those times again.

It’s easy to get depressed and give up watching the news, of getting media overload and want to withdraw into a cave somewhere. But as Toni Morrison wrote in her essay entitled ‘No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,’ included in the 150th anniversary issue of The Nation “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” And so I blog.

For the last 3 days there has been ‘The Big Bang Weekend’ in Wigtown, (near where I live) a series of lectures and readings celebrating women in science. Then coincidentally this morning  I read about Rachel Carson, a scientist/writer whose book Silent Spring was responsible for persuading the JFK administration to introduce federal laws to regulate the use of pesticides. As a woman she was up against tremendous prejudice and her critics in big business were keen to have her discredited. Yet nothing, not even dying of cancer, prevented her from doing what she believed to be right.

“She had been diagnosed with cancer in 1960, which had metastasized due to her doctor’s negligence. In 1963, when Silent Spring stirred President Kennedy’s attention and he summoned a Congressional hearing to investigate and regulate the use of pesticides, Carson didn’t hesitate to testify even as her body was giving out from the debilitating pain of the disease and the wearying radiation treatments. With her testimony as a pillar, JFK and his Science Advisory Committee invalidated her critics’ arguments, heeded Carson’s cautionary call to reason, and created the first federal policies designed to protect the planet. “(The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power by Maria Popova, Brain Pickings Weekly Newsletter 30 Jan 2017)

What she achieved is amazing in itself, but that she did so during a period of extreme pain in the knowledge that she was dying, is astonishing. If only other people followed through with the same commitment. I find this quote from James Comey, Head of FBI, particularly ironic.

“The need for reflection and restraint of power is what led Louis Freeh to order that all new agent classes visit the Holocaust Museum here in Washington so they could see and feel and hear in a palpable way the consequences of abuse of power on a massive, almost unimaginable scale.”

I wonder if he’s mentioned this to his new Commander-in-Chief? Hmmmm.

However, it is spring, so let’s end on a positive note with this quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

The happiness of life is made up of little charities of a kiss or a smile, a kind look, a heartfelt compliment.”

The big picture can look bleak at the moment, but let’s not forget the little things that can make a difference to someone, and remember the strength, determination and sacrifice of those who have gone before.

 

 

 

 

 

The Holocaust illustrates the consequences of prejudice, racism and stereotyping on a society. It forces us to examine the responsibilities of citizenship and confront the powerful ramifications of indifference and inaction. Tim Holden

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

I certainly think that another Holocaust can happen again. It did already occur; think of Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Miep Gies

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

We in the United States should be all the more thankful for the freedom and religious tolerance we enjoy. And we should always remember the lessons learned from the Holocaust, in hopes we stay vigilant against such inhumanity now and in the future. Charlie Dent

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

 

Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/holocaust.html

 

“Ain’t Nobody’s Fault But Mine….”

This traditional song was recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. My first encounter with it was back in 1967, sung by John Renbourne, but in 1969 it was recorded by Nina Simone and her version became the definitive one for me. The song tells of a spiritual struggle, with reading the Bible as the path to salvation, or, rather, the failure to read it leading to damnation.

“Blind Willie Johnson recorded the song in a time when illiteracy was common in the rural South. Blinded as a young child, Johnson was singing this song as a warning to those who had learned to read, but concerned themselves too much with earthly matters, but Johnson tries to point the way to salvation. He admits to having fault, and he blames himself for not taking advantage of the skill he has, reading, and saving himself. The context of this song is strictly religious. It is a melancholy expression of his spirit, as the blues style echoes the depths of his guilt and his struggle.” Wikipedia

The context of this song may be strictly religious, but my interpretation is: ‘Appreciate your gifts and take responsibility for your actions’. Something that seems to get blurred in today’s blame culture. Being a lover of words I know the difference between ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’ but recently had to examine those differences in the context of domestic abuse when reading ‘A Suitable Lie’ by Michael Malone.

This novel reverses the traditional view and places the man on the receiving end of an abusive relationship. It charts the escalation of abuse and explores the emotions involved, the attitudes of the victim, police, family and friends of the victim, questioning what it is to be a man and what it means to stay.

Domestic abuse will affect 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in their lifetime. It leads to, on average, two women being murdered each week and 30 men per year. It accounts for 16% of all violent crime, but it is still the violent crime least likely to be reported to the police,  has more repeat victims than any other and leaving the relationship does not automatically mean that the abuse will stop and the victims will then be safe. People experiencing abuse don’t accept what is happening to them but they may try to cope with it, avoid it, understand it or try to fix it. They may minimise what is happening, blame themselves, feeling ashamed, embarrassed and alone. (Source: http://www.lwa.org)

I found reading the novel very disturbing. I have stayed in relationships far longer than was healthy and whilst I’ve never experienced the level of violence portrayed in the novel, I’ve experienced the same gamut of feelings the victim does. In no way did I ‘blame’ the victim, thinking he brought it on himself, but like an ex-smoker who has an evangelical purge on smokers, I wanted to shout at him.

Emotional entanglements are difficult to cope with, especially if we use love as an excuse for fear. Fear of retaliations, of being alone, seeming a failure, letting people down, abandoning someone with mental health problems etc. We are not to blame for the first act of violence perpetrated upon us but we do have to take some responsibility for staying, for our fears, for seeking help.

Staying is a choice, just as leaving is. What informs those choices has so much to do with life experience, levels of self-worth, support available and awareness. There is much needed to be done with societal attitudes, law enforcement, funding for refuges (the novel raises the issue – where do male victims go?), availability of counselling etc. But if the purpose of art is to reflect Truth, then this novel goes a long way to raise questions about the truth of domestic violence in today’s society.

 

The Power of Words

Why Diary of an Invisible Woman?

I’ve been asked that question a few times and there’s a couple of answers I give:

  • I’ve reached that age when I’ve become sexually invisible to men and can’t remember the last time I was asked out on a date
  • I drive the invisible car that everyone cuts in front of, disregards when it comes to road safety, and doesn’t see at crossings or traffic lights

But the real reason is:

  • I’m rendered invisible by generic language

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when terms like ‘man’, ‘he’, ‘mankind’, ‘chairman’ etc knew nothing about gender scrutiny. When I married at 19 I was earning twice as much as a civil servant than my husband who was still an apprentice. We had to wait till he finished his apprenticeship before we were able to get a mortgage because only 10% of my wages were taken into consideration.

He worked away from home and I managed the house, our finances and then the children when they came along. Yet when the boiler broke down the plumber wanted my husband present because I was obviously too thick to understand what he was telling me. When I wanted to buy a new settee on HP the salesman wanted the ‘head of the house’ to sign the contract, and that, according to him, wasn’t me. If my husband wasn’t available, didn’t I have a dad who could sign for me?

When we got divorced I didn’t revert to my ‘maiden’ (yuk!) name, I kept the marital name because I didn’t want to have a different surname to my children. It was the norm for the woman to have to change her name to her husband’s and in those days there was no way to officially keep your own name. Unlike today. Resentment and emergent feminism made me take the title ‘Ms’ because I wanted to be known as a woman, (like Mr denotes a man) not as someone whose status was dependent upon whether or not she was tied to a man in marriage. However, to work colleagues, new acquaintances, older family members, the title meant ‘divorced’ and someone not to be touched with a barge pole.

I’ve recently started to learn Italian. The word for ‘son’ is figlio, for daughter ‘figlia’ , the plurals being figli and figlie respectively but the word for ‘children’ (rather than ‘babies’)is figli, whether that’s all boys or a mix of boys and girls. And it’s not only Italian that does this. All over the world, in lots of small, seemingly inconsequential ways, girls and women are eroded, rendered invisible by their language.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is something my mother tried to get me to say to myself when I was in trouble for fighting. My family moved a lot because of my dad’s job and I attended nine different schools in total. I was bullied mercilessly and punished viciously by teachers for fighting back, (corporal punishment rules OK) thereby gaining a reputation that followed me to each school. The words they used as they punished me were, ‘GIRLS do NOT behave like THAT!’ as if the word ‘girl’ held some sort of code of behaviour that I had to ascribe to. I can still feel the stick on my fingers.

My best friends were all boys, and possibly the reason why I was bullied so much by the girls in secondary school. One of the things we did was to look up all the ‘dirty’ words in a dictionary. But when it came to a word I didn’t understand, I carried on and looked that up, found another and looked that up, and so on in a word chase that lead me to strange places and stranger-sounding names.

Which I suppose is why I became a writer. I love words. I love the feel of them in my mouth, the sound they make when mixed with my breath, the meanings they have. And as a writer I get to choose the words I want, control my literary situations, manipulate the emphasis and meaning of texts. And avoid using generic language.

I Have a Dream

Born 15 Jan 1929

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday.

martin-luther-king

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. waves to participants in the Civil Rights Movement’s March on Washington from the Lincoln Memorial. It was from this spot that he delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on August 28, 1963.

(Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

He was murdered 4 April 1968 but his words have lived on to inspire many, many people throughout the decades since his death. I was 13 years old when he died and can still remember the feelings of outrage that I felt. I am white, live in the UK and my knowledge of the civil rights movement came primarily from newspapers and the TV. Yet even at that young age I was aware of the inequalities that existed in the world and felt a burning desire to do something about it.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Letter from Birmingham City Jail April 16 1963

The injustices that happened to me as a working class female don’t in any way compare with those experienced by black people but emotionally they enable me to empathise, which as a writer is something I need to be able to do.Writers of crime fiction don’t need to have killed someone to be able to identify with the emotions that can lead to the crimes they write about, they just have to project their imaginations that bit further. I was able to project my imagination into the horror of living under Macarthy and the KKK, segregation, racial abuse and discrimination. To the point where I hated. Yet hate is destructive and breeds its own kind of intolerance and prejudice.

This extract, taken from An Experiment in Love written ten years before his assassination, shows how much King lived his Christian beliefs:

“Nonviolent resistance … avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.” A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (public library)

This week Donald Trump assumes his position as President of the United States after a divisive, and what I see as regressive, campaign. He has pledged to bring people together, to heal rifts, but his behaviour so far as President Elect has not been encouraging. I hope the USA are not drifting back to the days of  White Supremacy and racial/religious intolerance.  So many people, like King, have given their lives for a peaceful, equitable society. Let us hope that their legacies are not violated.

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…from Strange Fruit by Billie Holliday