Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling

What a fascinating book. When I first heard we would be reading the biography of Pearl Buck for our book group choice I was less than enamoured. I started reading and thought my doubts confirmed. By the time I reached chapter two I realised I was totally mistaken. Hilary Spurling has written an excellent portrait of this prolific and accomplished writer's life.

Pearl Buck was born in America in 1892 but was brought up on the breadline in China by an eccentric missionary father and long suffering mother. Pearl spoke Chinese, lived like her Chinese neighbours and thought of herself as one of them. She was highly intelligent but when she finally went to college in America she felt totally out of place and her peers thought her strange.

Married to an able mission agriculturalist his lack of empathy, vision, passion and appreciation for literature drove them apart. Buck turned to writing and it was her salvation. Her first novel, The Good Earth, caused a sensation when it was published in 1931. At that time little was known of the way of life of Chinese peasants and that the communist party did all it could to stifle literacy. The Chinese communist party did not want the raw side of life in China told and the middle class American audience was unwilling to hear it.

However, The Good Earth portrayed the Chinese people, for the first time, as individuals with passions, fears and unusual ancient habits and went on to become a best seller. Buck left her husband and as a result had to leave her beloved China, never to return. Her wish for independence and achievement combined with the need to provide for herself and her only daughter, who was retarded, drove her on and she wrote nearly forty novels as well as short stories and articles.

She eventually married her publisher with whom she had a passionate relationship in which they were intellectual equals. They adopted several children but, although she had a close relationship with her own mother, she was not naturally maternal and became an oddly distant mother. She seemed to have adopted the children as replacements for her siblings that died before she was born and the healthy children she could not herself have.

Battling alone, always an outsider, Buck became towards the end of her life increasing idiosyncratic and dogmatic, a strong and strange woman. Eventually she cut herself off, looked after by equally odd companions, and assumed the mantle of an ancient inscrutable Chinese woman she had admired as a young woman.

Buck was a woman who had struggled and suffered much in her life and this comes through in her fiction as does her real understanding and love of China and the Chinese. The Good Earth – her most successful novel – charts an interesting period in Chinese history and did more to dispel the discrimination that surrounded the Chinese in western society than any of the more usual channels. Hilary Spurling's biography Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China is an illuminating and really fascinating read.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Children's Book by A.S.Byatt

I view holidays as the perfect opportunity to devour a few lengthly books, the ones there is never enough time to get through in everyday life. I gave up reading novels during the day years ago when I realised that I was fobbing my children off in order to get to the end of the chapter. Since then it has been reading in bed but, after a very full day, the eyelids have a different agenda.

I would probably not have read this book by one of the Dames of modern English literature had I not been on holiday. I really enjoyed The Childrens Book by A S Byatt. I say that as a stand alone, qualified statement because when you hear what I also have to say about it you may well be forgiven for thinking that I did not. It may be beautifully written but it is, quite simply, too long. I cannot imagine a publisher allowing anyone but a well respected and accomplished novelist to get away with a book quite as wordy as this*.

Olive, a poor working class young woman, marries a middle class banker and becomes a mother and successful fairytale writer. Indeed the book is a fairy story right from the start, but possibly in the Grimm mould. Dark things lurk beneath the surface.

The scope is vast, with so many strands to the story, so many characters and ideas that it could quite easily have been a trilogy. And better for it at that. It would take me pages to describe this novel, suffice to say that each strand is so interesting in itself it could quite easily become several. Think DH Lawrence, Bloomsbury, Tolkein, Pre-Raphaelites, Nesbit, Edwardian philanthropists, history, politics, domestic life, sensuality, birth and death.

You can read the outline of the plot and characters on any site but you may not read anyone who admits that they left chunks out. Now I am the sort of boring reader who reads every single word. I like words. If they are lyrical, a sentence beautiful or an idea challenging I read it again. So for me to leave out 'bits' is not in character.

The Children's Book is interspersed with fairy stories that Olive wrote for her children (hence the title), among others, and these I found interrupted the flow of the novel and became tedious. They seemed an indulgence that made the book far too long.

I enjoyed the period in which the book was set, the social ideas, problems of being a working mother, the artistic and historical references. Some of the characters stretched credulity but it was all very colourful and interesting. In particular Byatt's references to WW1 and her portrayal of Germany just prior to it were fascinating. This was more than enough. But fairy stories too? Fairy stories I had not banked on.


*A novel by another famous writer has just been released and the same criticism has been aimed at that.

PS So, Google has changed the format for downloading the blog - trouble is I have yet to work out how to Italicise on this new Blog format and how to download a photo! Please, could a fellow blogger could help me out? 

Monday, 27 August 2012

Wildflower Meadows

The sheep's in the meadows the cows in the corn; shades of the Olympic opening ceremony. It is now time to put on my smock, sharpen the scythe and dig out the old wooden hay rake. The native wildflower area in my garden is just about to be cut. We have left it until now because it was so wet in July we could not get it done and so decided to let the late summer flowers set seed with the additional benefit that an even greater number of insects and birds benefit.

Unfortunately it is now not a job we are looking forward too mainly because we have to rake up all the cut grass. A tiring and time consuming task but an absolutely essential one if we want to continue having a good mix of wildflowers.

I have seen the stunning wildflower areas at the Olympic Park – what a triumph their waterside planting is – but wonder how they will manage the various areas. Wildflower areas are perfect for masking the dying foliage of daffodils but after the end of June the dramatic landscape of grasses and wildflowers starts to look messy, especially if children and dogs have run through it. So in a domestic situation it is best to cut your wildflower areas then and not wait till the late summer flowers have set seed.

Wildflower areas need not be high maintenance but it is a common misconception that they look after themselves. They don't. The grass can either be cut in late June when the early flowering species have seeded or left until the end of August to allow the late flowering species to set seed; in either case the grass must be collected otherwise it will enrich the soil and wildflowers only flourish on impoverished soil. It is also necessary to remove or treat any patches of the most thuggish and invasive species and grasses or the better behaved native flowering plants will be unable to compete.

Whether you choose to scatter a wildflower seed mix on bare raked earth or put plug plants into established grass you will find that many wildflowers – naturally occurring or not – will not all appear the following year unless the soil is disturbed. The wheatfield poppies appeared annually because the soil was ploughed and other wildflowers reappeared because grassland was grazed. Grazing sheep kept down the thuggish species and cows feet disturbed the earth: hence the nursery rhyme, 'the sheep's in the meadow the cows in the corn'.

So, after cutting your wildflower meadow, collect the grass (home made hay) and if you cannot get somebody's sheep to graze it for a few months keep it cut and get a team of very energetic children to play sports on the area kicking the stuffing out of the grass. A few tents pitched on it or some kids on cross country bikes might also give the same effect but putting some pigs on it may be going too far. They will plough it to such an extent that it is only good enough for planting potatoes.

However small our plot we can all do our bit to encourage bees and other insects as pollinators and increase the bird and wildlife generally - it doesn't have to be on the grand scale of an Olympic Park. Even if it is only small areas of native wildflowers around trees or along garden boundaries, cultivating wildflowers will help counteract the sad loss to our wildlife now apparent by over-manicured hedges and verges and pesticide sprayed fields.

Come on, time to go wild! Lucy

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The joys of English gardening in July

The garden is a jungle this July. The warm weather and all the rain we have had has produced growth that makes a tropical rain forest look as if it's underperforming. Quite apart from the stupendous growth spurt that most greenery has produced there are various thugs that threaten to overpower everything in sight.

Have you noticed that the most awful of weeds are often the most delicate or pretty? Bindweed is one of the worst culprits. The leaves are small and beautifully formed. The arrow like spades teeter on delicate sinuous curling stems that coil perfectly around any tall plant in their neighbourhood. Turn your back for a moment and there are several sinuous curling stems all coiling around each other like a great rope choking every living thing in their path. Reaching the extent of their host, elegant ethereal white spathes appear on the creepers. White, pure, innocent looking flowers. The bees may love them but what a deadly development this is. Beauty that conceals the beast's seeds. Even if you cut these off before they do their damnest, every inch of stem and root that clings to the plant or stays in the soil will produce a hundred sneaky, suffocating, crawly creepers. No wonder Sleeping Beauty escaped detection for so long. In a twinkling of an eye bindweed totally smothered her castle.

Japanese knotweed is a similarly snake-like interloper. First you don't notice it at all. Mistake number one. By the time you do notice, it has been joined by several siblings. These are all medium height plants with the prettiest most delicate and exotic flowers. Pea-like, pretty and pink. They are far too attractive to do any harm. They add a certain elegance to the border. You decide to let them stay. Mistake number two. Soon, you are aware that these plants have multiplied rather alarmingly and are dotted about between the perennials. Nevertheless, they do look so lovely, now tall and stately. They add rather than detract from the border display. Mistake number three. Because one day – just when you are congratulating yourself for having acquired such ethereal additions to your border - everything changes. Their delicate pretty pink pea-like flowers explode. Yes, EXPLODE. They burst open with such ferocity and force that the seeds are expelled like exocet missiles across the entire bed, border, path, hedge and lawn within a ten meter radius. They will forever populate your garden and ensure that you will be pulling them out for the rest of your gardening lifetime.

Finally there is that attractive little leaf that pops up in the bare earth between your burgeoning perennials. Is it the angelica you planted last year. Yes, the leaf looks familiar. You leave it to develop. You do love angelica. Soon there are several leaves. So attractively shaped, such a fresh green, and they are doing no harm. Soon enough a shoot appears surmounted by a delicate white frothy flower. It IS angelica. Just wait until the stem grows into something worth preserving. Stangely, this takes longer than expected. The leaves now totally cover all the bare earth between every single plant in the bed. A kind friend commiserates: what a shame it is that you have ground elder. You do a little research and realise that you have been nurturing one of the most invasive weeds in existence in the western world. And now it is here and well established, it is with you forever.

That's gardening for you! Lucy

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Rotter's Club by Jonathan Coe

What do we recall from our own schooldays – not always a great deal in detail. However, reading Jonathon Coe's novel set in the 1970's, which draws on his own teenage schooldays, all those characters we knew – the pupils, their parents, prefects and teachers – come back to us because it seems that whatever school we went to there are inevitable types.

The bully, a wise-cracker, the swot, an arty one and so on; parents who were easy going, ones that were tough, others who were wild or incredibly straight. Teacher types, too, have not changed; some we liked, hated, admired or fooled. The Rotter's Club has them all and so memories of one's own schooldays cannot help but come flooding back.

And, if you lived in the 1960's, it is the descriptions of the places, rooms, cars and so on that bring back fond memories of bedrooms and living rooms, journeys, clothes and food. But also come less comfortable memories of the embarrassments, insecurities or disappointments of teenage years.

Coe starts the novel with two young people remembering a tale told by their parent. Unfortunately this is not believable although, fortunately, reading it one forgets until suddenly brought back to this device at the close.

The idea Coe had that the school could be portrayed as a microcosm of the world may have worked had not the antics of the parents also been included. In addition, looking back in hind-sight is not always an easy thing to achieve in literature and, at times, Coe falls into the trap of his characters 'knowing' things they could not, of setting up historical references or of including other events of the time to beef up a point. On the other hand, momentous events that happen to his characters – death, its aftermath, bullying, terrorism - are oddly minimised or left unexplained.

Jonathan Coe is a good writer and a well written book is an easy to read book. But the structure of this novel is a bit choppy, some events too far-fetched and it is way, way too long. Nevertheless, there is real humour - in some places laugh out loud funny - although now and then it dissolves into slapstick. The dialogue is also often very well observed and the descriptions, here and there, excellent.

Those of our group who enjoyed the book most were those who were at school in that era – to a great extent because they could reminisce – whilst others only enjoyed some aspects of it. Personally I think of it as a good holiday read – not perfect but readable and light. Other's, however, did not enjoy it one bit. So, it is a Curate's Egg sort of book and, perhaps, if one wants to start reading Coe, not the best of his to start with.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Brooklyn, Colm Toibin

Toibin, born and raised in Ireland , was brought up in Enniscorthy, the town he describes in the novel. It is therefore no surprise that he gives the story such a sense of time and place. Brooklyn is set in the 1950's and if the reader feels that the central character, Eilis, is a little unreal it is necessary to remember that women's choices then were limited and their expectations of freedom lower.

Toibin writes using the third person, in the past not the present, because he believes that memories give greater depth. Themes of his previous novels have covered personal identity, Irish society and alienation, and all these are embraced in Brooklyn.

Eilis, born in a small southern Irish town, is expected to emigrate to America as the only way to better her prospects. Her loss and homesickness come as a surprise to her but, for a mild character who sleepwalked into emigrating, she seems to embrace American culture with the determination of most émigrés and gains professional qualifications. However, she continues for the most part to maintain her sense of Irish respectability and religious beliefs.

Until she meets Tony, an Italian-American, who has an energy and optimism that Eilis admires and whom she grows fond of. He introduces her to his warm family life, a family unlike her own, that speaks its mind and shows outward affection. All looks set for a hopeful life of steady improvement. Then her elder sister, Rose, who has kept her ill health secret, dies and Eilis feels she must make a trip home to see her mother.

The simplicity of Toibin's style – no long fancy descriptions and a very spare writing – is an attractive facet of the narrative. But it is not easy for a novelist to write so simply whilst still getting across depth of character and events. And in this case it is a style that is not always successful. Dialogue - which is brillaint - and situation drives the story forward but the story has no clear plot and little emotion.

A poet and journalist, Toibin was the son of a frustrated writer and nephew of a poet. They were a family who liked writing down feelings and thoughts but apparently not one that spoke about them. It is that sense of what is felt but not mentioned that informs this novel. It is what is not said that is important.

Belonging is perhaps the over-riding theme of the novel – Eilis does not feel she belongs in Brooklyn – she is alienated; eventually comes to feel she does belong; returns to Ireland where she thinks she belongs then finds she no longer does – she is alienated once more. So returns to Brooklyn.

Another theme is loss – the loss Eilis feels for her home, her siblings, for her mother, later for her sister and finally for her previous life and the life she might have lived had she married an Irishman.

A further theme is that circumstances determine the decisions we make in our lives – that very often the course of action we take is decided for us - time and tide decide where we will end up. Eilis is portrayed as a girl with no will of her own, a strong work ethic and a sense of duty.

But themes do not make a book, characters can. Eilis does not come over as a wholly believable character or, at times, a particularly warm one. She displays no passion and drifts into life changing decisions. Yet, Eilis did make some decisions and not always the right ones. It is one of these decisions – to return to Ireland - that constitutes the most disappointing and unreal part of the story.

The deceit that she exhibits on her return may be meant to reflect the deception of her sister, and later that of her mother. Or, possibly, it is an example of her less than perfect character? On the other hand, the deceit may be just another example of how the family concealed their feelings and refused to accept the undesirable.

Earlier in the story there are also some other odd and annoying facets: the severe sickness and awfulness of Eilis' journey over to America were accentuated yet led to no revelation. When she returns to Ireland the privations and discomforts of the passage are never mentioned. Another unanswered and unnecessary point is that on occasions it is mentioned that Tony is blond, quite unlike his dark Italian brothers. This is left as a tenuous hint at a doubtful parentage in the mind of the reader, but there is no reference to why or how this could be.

And it is this enigmatic writing that instead of stimulating the reader, annoyed many of our reading group. The denouement of the story was flagged as a dilemma but failed to live up to its promise, whilst the end left many dissatisfied. The book was easy to read, there was some lovely writing, great dialogue, mild humour and some touching scenes but only one or two of these really stirred the emotions. I quite enjoyed Brooklyn but, eventually, the novel that promised much, delivered much less than expected.


Sunday, 29 April 2012

No literary agent, no publisher - no book.

Literary agents are rare creatures. The official definition for a Literary Agent is: a person who manages business, financial, or contractual matters for a writer. Or, as the free online dictionary defines agent:  1. One that acts or has the power or authority to act. 2. One empowered to act for or represent another: an author's agent; an insurance agent.

But in my book the definition is: Author's agent - an individual or ever dwindling group of individuals with sufficient clients who are very unlikely to take on further clients unless they are famous. Which rather leaves me out in the cold. I understand their reason: a great deal of time has to be invested marketing a new, or relatively unknown, author and if it reaps no rewards who pays the agent's bar bill?    

So, having contacted a few agents and having some kind encouragement but no-one biting my hand off, I am starting to widen my circle. At the same time as approaching agents who may just find my book so riveting that they are willing to take my work on, I thought I would look into contacting book publishers direct. 

Book publishers are difficult creatures to corner. The definition of a book publisher is roughly: a company that pays to acquire, develop, design, produce and publicize a book. But the definition should probably include 'after which outlay there is no guarantee of return'. I understand the economics. 

Unfortunately, since my novel, A Little Blue Jacket, was published, few book publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts. An agent wants a best selling author, likewise, a publisher wants a best seller. Like an agent they know these are one in a million. So how do they wade through a slush pile the size of a Swedish forest. And what are their chances of finding JKR II in all that pulp.

It's for this reason that most book publishers only accept manuscripts through a literary agent. By using an agent to do their sifting they have cut their costs and increased their chances of success. I know that literary agents and book publishers are bombarded with requests from wanna-be published authors. I know that neither agent nor publisher can ever hope to cope with it all.

But now you see my dilemma without my really having to spell it out: no agent, no publisher. No book. So, tell me, how do I, a modest and talented writer (like all hopeful authors) with a highly individual manuscript ready and waiting to go, solve this conundrum. How is it to be overcome. Please give me a contact. Or just practical advice. Even a teensy weensy clue would help ….anything?