Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Monday, December 25, 2006

January's suggestion

For a change in scene, let's try Amy Tan: "The kitchen god's wife". Another new-to-me author, this time recommended by Helen D, and one which Kirsty and I would like to try.

Anne Tyler: New author - new danger

Anne Tyler was new to me. Glad to try her, but it also left me feeling rather rudderless. I had no idea how she as an author tended to behave. I didn't know if the story was a farce, a tragedy or gritty documentary drama. Having read most of it I still didn't know how she might end it. I hadn't realised how much I relax into knowing the genre of the work I'm watching/reading. While I'm hopeless at predicting what will happen, I generally have a rough idea of the sort of things that will/not. Watching Volver was similarly confusing because it was Spanish and by Almodovar, and I had no ideas of his normal parameters. That worked very well in the film, but it was still quite a switchback ride.

In the end, of course, Tyler's ending was in keeping with her novel, which seems fair. Humour, pathos, farce, disappointment and coping. I found the characters irritating - self-absorbed or unassertive - but ultimately the novel was a comedy of manners rather than a tragedy. Even though the actual events and situations could well have been handled as tragedy they weren't, which made them easier to accept. If Rebecca can accept them (the door shutting with finality behind her - brilliant Val, I hadn't noticed that) and end up choosing them over her alternatives, the reader is minded to go along with her. And yes, you're right - she didn't for a moment imagine joining Will's world. Who could? He didn't have a hinterland. Surely that was material for tragedy, but he was shuffled out before we dwelt too long on his life. It is her lucky escape which we are meant to experience, I think.

Does she end up married to Zeb, do you think? Valerie noticed the lack of sexual charge, and Rebecca seems oblivious to a bond between them, but then again she's not very sharp, is she? Zeb, after all, planted a kiss on her head and the very next sentence reads: "There were still so many happenings still to be hoped for in her life". What do you think?

Tyler is clever, isn't she? Very observational herself, and informing the reader while Rebecca remains largely clueless. I mean, is it just me or is it likely Joe at some level wanted to kill himself? It doesn't seem to occur to Rebecca.

I think Val's spot on with her thoughts about nets that support or entrap. Rebecca does seem to choose the Open Arms, so I guess she's happier finding herself in that -needed but largely unappreciated - than going and doing something else. Rebecca certainly needs to nuture. As Valerie points out, Peter seems to be one of the few appreciative or promsing elements in her life. Rebecca lets things like that motivate her, rather than being overwhelmed by her arguably bigger problem of wall-to-wall family dysfunction. Attitude over circumstances?! I'm reminded of T S Eliot: "Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something upon which to rejoice".

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Valerie's post on "Back when we were grownups"

A glut of nicknames

I enjoyed reading this book rather to my own surprise, as the opening
chapter made my heart sink, faced with so many characters with so many
nicknames. I found NoNo, Patch, MinFoo and Poppy, four too many and
rather precious, which is not to my taste. The story was of the
mumsy, middle-aged and menopausal variety that I would expect to have
little appeal to those not mumsy, middle-aged or menopausal. It
reminded me of Carol Shields and of Anita Brookner. The latter's
characters are usually unmarried, but having the same feeling that
life has passed them by. I have since finished a book by the
Tonbridge author, Penelope Morrish, on a similar theme. Perhaps I have
read too many on the same theme.

I enjoyed the book because of the writing. I think Anne Tyler is a
very skilled writer and conveys the thoughts and feelings of her
characters in a subtle and precise use of language and many well
observed insights. Rebecca, thrown into sudden maturity, looking
after three little girls and then her own, aged twenty, remains the
support for her daughters, who show little of her maturity and coping
ability and continually seek her support. Bereaved at twenty six, with
no opportunity to grieve, she has to maintain a party face for a
living, but also insists on frequent celebrations that require her to
be in a party mood. Although she is surrounded by people most of the
time, she misses the close relationship of her late husband.
Returning to Will is unsuccessful. She tried to bring him into her
world. She was not anticipating joining his world. (Or did I miss
something?) Would he be a support or a dependant? I did not find her
treatment of him very believable. Slamming down the phone did not
seem to be in character, for one so used to handling people. She
found Zeb most understanding and supportive but she was not attracted
to him. "looked quite ugly" "greasy hair."

At the end I think Rebecca knows where her heart is. At the centre of
her family, giving parties and nurturing children. After all, she has
Peter to encourage in his science.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Plot spoiler for Back when we were grownups

This is a very thought-provoking book and well written to boot: “He closed the door so gently behind her that she thought at first it wasn’t latched. But it was.” (P 75) and Rebecca irrevocably became a Davitch. What her flirtation with retracing her steps to see if she could become someone else with Will showed clearly was that you never can go back. But didn’t really show her that you can change the ongoing direction. She thinks she doesn’t like the Davitch/Open Arms life she leads, but in fact, that is now who she is. Apart from the ongoing unrealised romantic potential of Zeb, I am left thinking she’s not going to make any changes at all. Which is depressing. But perhaps I missed some clues? I think family ties are a net – a safety net of support but also a gill net which hold you fast and may drown you – and I think that’s what this book is about.

One theme within it that I was also struck by was the impact of motherhood. In Rebecca’s case, amplified by having three instant step daughters, but for many women, sometime into the first few months or years of motherhood comes the realisation that this is it, whatever you may have thought life would be. Did Rebecca drown or did she become an accomplished high wire act, with the safety net beneath her?

Anyone know where I can buy a prayer toaster (p 260)?

Half a short history

I’m loving Bryson so far. For once, all the reviews and hype about this being an engaging and accessible book for the laywoman are spot on. He writes so humorously and humanely: I keep turning back to p 163 to reread “…the New York Times decided to do a story (about Einstein) and – for reasons that can never fail to excite wonder – sent the paper’s golfing correspondent, one Henry Crouch, to conduct the interview” and I always giggle. Whilst I was reading , I think I almost understood E=mc2 (my memory is not his problem); at last got a finger tip hold on quantum physics; was stunned by what we don’t know about the oceans (just saw the Planet Earth one); have remembered that if solar systems were frozen peas they’d fill the Albert Hall; and was intrigued to find that I’d studied Read’s original theories of plate tectonics at University. Can’t wait to get on with the life as we know it bit.

Emily, I agree entirely about the Creationist view needing to be acknowledged – it is no more implausible to a non-scientist than what may actually have happened. Though I’m trying to commit to memory “There is no evidence that could in principle disprove ID so by definition it is not science”. ( James Randerson, Guardian 13 Dec 06.)

I have two problems with this book – which may possibly resolve themselves but which I think will not. Reading this you’d think everything we know about anything was ‘discovered’ by white Western men. To take just two examples, what about all the knowledge the Arab world had about maths and astronomy, long before the West; and didn’t the unmentioned Mrs Einstein do most of the maths for Albert? The fact I can’t remember her name says it all. The only two women I’ve noted so far are the fossil collector Mary Anning and Marie Curie. This book is (otherwise) so good that it is going to set back the cause of racial and gender justice irreparably. Even if, for understandable reasons, he decided to restrict himself to English language plus some European research, he might have said this is what he was doing.

I’m so glad that this was chosen for the blog or it might well have nested next to Melvin Bragg’s the Adventure of English on my ‘to read’ shelf for a very long time.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

“Emily, have you been reading Bill Bryson again?”

Said John, noticing that I am suddenly full of fascinating facts (the difficulty of anything getting fossilized at all, the whole of Yellowstone being a volcanic crater but only discernible from the air, Marie Curie's COOKbooks still being too dangerous to handle, etc). I invariably finish Bryson's factual books thinking, in vain, “lots to remember”. But reading it with you inspired me to take notes and engage more: thank you!

Bryson has a real instinct for the telling detail, and expresses it deftly. For instance, he describes the “inventive but not terribly plausible explanations” posited for glaciation, such as: “the gouges on rocks could be attributed to passing carts or even the scrape of hobnailed boots.”

He also writes boldly, for eg: “We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas”. I enjoyed such exaggerated language for its humour and accuracy. The book really communicated the extent of our ignorance, set against the extraordinary complexity, mystery and beauty of the world.

I have also found it thought-provoking to be analysing a factual book for a change. What do you all think about the line he's walked between entertainment and education? Between impartiality and persuasion? Using an engaging, accessible style is invaluable (cf. Hutton: “encouraged by his friends to expand his theory, in the touching hope that he might somehow stumble into clarity in a more expansive format” - how MANY pieces of writing have I encountered which do that! But Hutton had a Bryson-like Playfair: “who could not only write silken prose but... actually understood what Hutton was trying to say, most of the time.”). I do like Bryson's wit. Could the book have worked without it?

Another tactic I noticed was that Bryson only gives his side of the story. It's a little odd to read a book of this length which emphasises that life here is virtually impossible and we can't imagine how it started or how it runs, and yet never mentions that the theory of intelligent design exists. You don't have to agree with the theory to see that it does at least posit a possible answer to an undeniable question. Surely it wouldn't hurt to refer in passing to the alternative theories for some aspects of life on earth.

Bryson nails how the planet operates so very implausibly: “Bohr once commented that a person who wasn't outraged on first hearing about quantum theory didn't understand what had been said” (sounds like Christianity!) and Bryson also appreciates the finely-balanced mechanisms by which the world DOES work when you find out about them, just like the “Geologists, as McPhee has noted, [who] found themselves in the giddying position where the whole earth suddenly made sense”.

I certainly found it easier to retain information because Bryson had clear, re-iterated, distillations for us. (Handy, since I have forgotten most of the detail!) I noticed the injustice, typically: “an important paper, which was almost universally ignored. Sometimes the world just isn't ready for a good idea” . Contrarily, loopy ideas often seem to find: “support especially [among] those whose conclusions were not complicated by actual familiarity with the [subject]”. The general rule does seem to be that the credit goes, if at all possible, to the wrong person, and that there's more money and recognition in oil than in science. There was a lot more human interest than I was expecting. The personalities/ rivalries in science had such an effect, and, despite all the breathtaking intellect and research, so many advances or dead-ends seemed dictated by trivial circumstances. What did you others take away as themes?