Sunday, 23 March 2014

Review of 2013 Man Booker Shortlisted 'Harvest' by Jim Crace (my first mumsnet book review)

A beautifully crafted tale where 'Lark Rise to Candleford' meets 'Heart of Darkness'.

Our protagonist is a well meaning day dreamer, widower Walter Thirsk, who narrates the story of how, in their harvest week, a feudal village is slowly dismantled through misadventure and false retribution.

The story begins in a tiny, timeless village, it could be medieval or Victorian, which already hints at deeper allegorical meaning then this simple story first suggests. The villagers are awoken by smoke and fearfully discover that their Lord of the Manor’s dovecote and stables have been set alight. At the same time they also discover some visitors have arrived on their land and, in an abandoned dwelling, have also lit a fire, in order to cement their common law right to remain on the land.

Thirsk swiftly identifies the arsonists as a few of the village lads he had observed the previous evening under the the influence of 'fairy caps’ (mushrooms). However, when the Lord of the Manor, Master Kent, arrives to observe the damage all the villagers are quick to point the finger at the smokey trespassers, who turn out to be a father, daughter and her husband. The daughter, who is captivatingly beautiful, is given the nickname of Mistress Beldame by the villagers.

Master Kent issues ‘lenient' punishment to the father and son-in-law that involves them being hung in the village Pillory, by their hands, for a week. However, they are sloppily tied  up which results in the death of the father. As Thirsk and Kent realise what’s happened they are descended on by usurper of the Manor, cousin Edmund Jordan. He is accompanied with an entourage of thugs and swiftly confirms their suspicions that change is afoot. Jordan has plans to revolutionise the land and upgrade it from arable farming, to graze sheep on for wool, thus making the villagers both redundant and homeless.

Immediately things begin to unravel in this nameless and Godless village, where despite being supplied with the materials, the church remains unbuilt. There is a strong ‘us’ and ’them’ between the villagers and the Lord and his cousin. Also we suspect Mistress Beldame, like a ghost, haunts the village at night, carrying out brutal acts to avenge the death of her father. 

Thirsk, despite having been resident in the hamlet for 10 years, is still considered a newcomer. He has dark hair in a place where everyone is fair and joined the village whilst under the employ of Master Charles Kent, who through his marriage acquired the Manor and it’s estate and thus control of the village. This is where Thirsk met his wife, Cecily Saxton and he fully embraced his new life, moving from the servants quarters of the Manor to living in a cottage and farming the land. 

Ironically, despite his devotion to the village folk, when things start to go wrong Thirsk is spurned by his neighbours and feels like an outsider, resulting in him returning to his Master’s side. There are several other ironic twists throughout the story. The villagers are desperate to remain on their beloved ancestral homeland, which causes them to act impulsively and thoughtlessly which instead requires them to up and leave or face the lawful consequences of their actions. 
There is also a recurrent theme of often needless finger pointing and re-apportioning of blame, an act of subterfuge which is carried out by nearly every lead character. 

Crace’s beautifully crafted meandering prose takes you on a gentle journey through simple English rural life. Just his sentence structure and verse-like paragraphs, are to any poetry lovers a wondrous delight to read. ’The awns and whiskers of the barley’s ears were brittle and dry enough to chit-chat-chit every time they were disturbed, nattering with ten thousand voices at every effort of the wind or every scarper of a rabbit, mouse of bird'

I also started noting down some examples of sententious verse and swiftly had to stop as there were so many. ‘Dissent is never counted; it is weighed. The master always weighs the most’

Another example of Crace’s immaculate summation of Thirsk’s feelings about his deceased wife Cecily: ‘There’s solace in the thought I will never finish missing her’ For me this sentence captured beautifully that feeling that I think anyone who has lost someone close can relate to, that their memory will never die. 

Crace also doesn’t just describe the warm glow of the English countryside on the brink of Autumn but also it’s aroma, it’s texture and the feelings these sensations evoke within. 

It’s also hard not to like our sensitive, bumbling protagonist, who wears his flaws on his sleeve and wrestles with good intentions versus his self-motivation. He plans to provide a platform for the pilloried father to stand on, but doesn’t get round to it and so the man slips and dies. Throughout the story he comes across as more of a thinker than a doer. When he ends up deciding to take what he deems as revolutionary action against the new Lord of the Manor, this purely involves ploughing a couple of furrows over a field.  However, he does redeem himself at the end with the most passionate of acts. 

Personally, I would have preferred more of a rounded story, as I felt it was like a whodunit and so was expecting some explanation of the various atrocities that take place throughout, in a slightly more satisfyingly spoon-fed ending. However, I appreciated Thirsk's sometimes frustratingly random apparition-like daydreams (including a brief ‘fairy cap’ induced experience), as this created an almost tantalising crescendo as the events slowly unfold that brings about this village’s downfall. 

A deceptively dark read disguised as a gentle story of life in the English countryside; Harvest is articulate, expertly archaic and Crace adeptly demonstrates his abilities as a wordsmith and poet in this accomplished allegorical tale. If you are in love with the English language, especially when it is written by the most skilled of hands, then this book is a joyous must read. 

Saturday, 22 March 2014

A note from a converted horse racing fan

Last Friday I was very lucky to wangle a day at the races at the Cheltenham festival, on Gold Cup day no less. As a former desperately avid, if slightly rubbish, horse rider I have had to keep my horse fixation at bay (forgive the pun) for many years through lack of time and knee cartilage. So at this point you would expect me to gush about how delighted I was to enjoy a full day of pure horse admiration. However, I have to confess that it was with some initial reluctance I joined the thronging masses pouring into Cheltenham race course last Friday morning. 

I can’t remember when my equine obsession started exactly, but horses were almost a full time part of my life from the age of 12.  When leaving my country bumpkin life in West Sussex to go off to the bright lights of university (in Watford), as a student I would often, after Quincey had finished, put on Channel 4 Racing, just to watch the parade of beautifully turned out horses. At the time, it was the closest I could get to the real thing and was a tiny, warm reminder of home. It was also at this point that I formed the belief that were it not for the huge array of bookmakers out there, then no one would bother with horse racing. This is not me making a comment on bookmakers, I have no issues with sensible gambling.  This is to do with the sheer lack of lovers of horse racing in its purest form, with no money involved. Generally speaking I don’t think I class horse racing as a sport and jockeys as athletes and I put this down to the seedy, money motivated edge that, for me, holds it back from its status alongside say show jumping or dressage. I felt like race horses were disposable and only fit for purpose.  

I am very pleased to say that my experience last week, delightfully, blew these beliefs to splinters. 
So what was the detonator responsible for the destruction of my underlying sadness about the prospect of a day at the races? Firstly the fantastic array of people I met. It’s hard to describe the Cheltenham crowd. Having previously once been to Ascot it’s easy to try and compare these 2 bigs horse racing events however, they are very different animals indeed and I don’t just mean the horses (sorry again). The fact that Cheltenham racecourse is situated in a natural amphitheatre and that the festival takes place in very early spring means the high winds have a huge effect on the potential fashion show. Namely that, for most of the ladies, decorative hats and fascinators are shelved in favour of a more practical uniform of tweed, felt hats adorned with pheasant feathers and barbours. 

So firstly I encountered some living, breathing, passionately hardcore, if a little worn out, race fans, who had been at Cheltenham all week and had been coming for years. They couldn’t get enough of the horses and the atmosphere. I immediately felt foolish that my preconception was that people would turn up for one day with the sole intention of gambling their entire net worth. I got talking to one of the many racing pundits who stroll around, dispensing tips, and asked who was his favourite for the Gold Cup. I was stunned at his response that, for him, it was a race to watch and believe it or not to enjoy, not to bet on.
It would also be pertinent to point out here that British horse racing as an industry is supported financially by one of the most prolific horse breeders in the world, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, of Dubai, a country where gambling is illegal. 
It was a pleasure to bathe in the rugged electricity of the atmosphere at the race course despite the constant icy breeze. Everyone is infectiously friendly and quick to tell you who their favourite horse is. Conversations start with the same ‘how’s your day, up or down?’ and always get the same response of ‘about level’. Gold Cup day was predictably eventful. Jockey Daryl Jacob, within minutes of having won his first race (he had already taken part in 14 that week) whilst riding to join the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (a race that has amusingly acquired the nickname 'the potato race' thanks to its sponsor) was thrown from his horse so forcibly he broke his leg, knee and elbow. The highlight of the day, if a little controversial, was when, in the Gold Cup race, an outsider, Lord Windermere, appeared from nowhere and, after a stewards enquiry, was named as winner of the Gold Cup. 

What can I say, I am converted, if a little bitter. Having always held the nickname of Annie, 3 guesses who I lost all my money on, a horse that didn’t prove quite so powerful on the day. 

Actual decorations in the hotel foyer where we stayed (our room was up 5 flights of stairs and there was no lift!)

A couple of before and after shots of Cheltenham racecourse..

Monday, 17 March 2014

The milk of human kindness?

Last week a mother was photographed sitting on the steps of a restaurant in the Staffordshire town of Rugeley, breastfeeding her baby and consequently had her photo posted on a public Facebook page, along with the label of ‘tramp’. (Read the story HERE) I know I am one of many who will have taken to their soapboxes about this ridiculous turn of events, but seriously? 

As a mother who struggled to breast feed my first son, I felt hugely lucky that second time round I succeeded. I don’t consider this an achievement, nor do I congratulate myself in any way, as it all felt rather out of my control and more down to the good fortune of biology working in my favour. However, once I had nailed it I realised there was another obstacle I needed to overcome: the first feed in public. I couldn’t deny, even after completely embracing the indignity I felt around the experience of giving birth, that I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect or whether I would be able to do it, let alone the reaction of others (although I did always wonder what business was it of theirs). Even the thought of doing it round a friend’s house filled me with dread. I had watched the BBC3 programme with Cherry Healey about breastfeeding, where the only mother she could find to follow who was able to breastfeed was so terrified of doing it in public she would decamp to the nearest toilet to feed her baby.
I remember deciding that I would just go out and when the situation arose I would just have to get on with it. I also had one of those rather lovely feeding shawls so had no worries about protecting my modesty. I recall it was overlooking the ice rink in London's Bishopsgate circle, swarming with suited city workers on their lunch breaks, that I conducted my first feed outdoors. In retrospect I can't think of a more child unfriendly place, but actually it was perfect, no one batted an eyelid or even gave me a second glance and my confidence soared. 

Suddenly I realised I could go anywhere without any preparation or organisation and possessed the powers to pacify my baby wherever I was, be it on a tube train or Madame Tussauds (I did it on or in both of these places). If I could sit down then I could feed my child. I quickly also realised that my worries about people being able to see my boobs were pointless. Once a baby has latched on there is nothing to see. So I quickly abandoned my feeding shawl in favour of a scarf, but only if it got cold, to keep out the draft.  

I am pleased to say I never had a bad reaction from anyone (although I did have a rather hilarious pervert attempt to loiter too closely in Westfield - I remember laughing in his face, as it was genuinely hilarious). However, in those early sleep deprived days, things were very different especially my sensitivity to the reactions of others. A scornful sideways glance from someone, who was being held up as a direct result of my buggy wheel becoming wedged whilst I was getting off a bus, meant I, quite irrationally now I realise, avoided buses for months. I don't like to think what I would have done if someone had reacted badly to me feeding my baby, despite the laws in place to legally allow mothers to breast feed wherever they like, unless it poses a health and safety risk. (for clarification on this read HERE

So fair play to all those ladies who on Saturday showed their support the mother in question: Lucy Slough, by taking part in the giant public breast feed (read about it HERE). If I was still lactating I would have proudly joined them. 

When it comes to breastfeeding, mothers need all the help and support available and this atrociously ignorant behaviour by this spiteful individual purely highlights how brainwashed a nation we are when it comes to breastfeeding. I would put money on the fact that whoever was responsible for this abuse has no issue with drinking cow's milk. Having a baby is meant to be the most natural thing in the world, yet feeding your baby calls for public vilification? 

To think I raised my eyebrows at the government's scheme to incentivise mothers to breastfeed for longer by offering vouchers. The stupidity of this rogue photographer last week demonstrates that we clearly need all the help we can get. 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

My best read of the year! A pre-release review of Reinhard Kleist's 'The Boxer'

So this is not the first time I have written about holocaust related literature on this blog. Just a couple of weeks ago I reviewed the graphic novel ‘We Won’t See Aushwitz’ (read review here) and then, last week, managed to wangle my way into the launch of an up and coming book from the same publishing house titled ‘The Boxer’ by German writer and artist Reinhard Kleist. This is the true story of holocaust survivor Harry Haft, a young Polish Jew who, during the war, was forced to box for the amusement of the SS in the numerous concentration camps. After the war he then travelled to America where he became a professional boxer. 

At first I thought I would shelve this and review some other books first, for fear of being typecast as having some kind of holocaust fixation (and a Self Made Hero fixation too for that matter). But then I read it and I wept. 

Also, it is not very often that I get my hands on a pre release book so, bearing this in mind, I will do my best to give as little away as possible but equally still hopefully get you bubbling with excited anticipation of an imminent fantastic read.

Harry Haft, born Hertzkow Haft, was a Polish Jew from Betchatow, Poland and was sixteen at the start of the second world war. He was one of 8 siblings and his initial fate is sadly predictable as he is swiftly deported by the Nazis to Strezlin, a concentration camp. 

This was never going to be an easy read. What makes Art Spiegelmen’s ‘Maus' vaguely palatable (for want of a better word), is that it detracts from the acts of horror that Spiegelman’s father’s experiences by depicting the characters as mice. So how would Kleist tell the story of someone who at one point works in a death camp crematorium? I knew from attending the launch some of the horrors inside the book and was bracing myself. I was relieved that Kleist dealt with these unspeakably horrific moments sensitively and abstractly. With just some well thought out brush strokes, a multitude of subtle suggestions are made. With little description or dialogue, this works beautifully in demonstrating the horror but without giving you nightmares. There are other moments in the book, far less graphic in their gory detail but equally as harrowing, that are dealt with head on, in brutally forthright detail, which I wasn’t prepared for. However this is no criticism, there is a story here that needed to be told and it’s not about protecting the reader all the time. 

Haft is moved from camp to camp, including Aushwitz where he is 'taken under the wing' of an SS Officer, who notices Haft’s boxing skills. Soon Haft is tasked with boxing other prisoners on a weekly basis for the amusement of the SS soldiers, often killing several opponents in an afternoon. He soon is given the nickname ‘The Jewish Beast’. However, with the allied forces looming, Haft, along with the rest of the inmates are moved on from camp to camp.

As the curtain signalling the end of the war falls on Europe, Haft decides to go to America in pursuit of his childhood sweetheart, Leah, who he has heard managed to flee there before the war. Once in America, he can find no trace of Leah and decides to try his hand at professional boxing. With the promise of fame and more importantly his name being in the papers all he can think about is the potential publicity that might allow Leah to track him down and so Haft takes on every opponent who will fight him. This leads up to the biggest fight of his career against one of the most successful professional boxers of the 20th century: Rocky Marciano.

There are some beautiful moments that demonstrate Haft’s humanity, including his dedication to finding his first love. However, we also see what Haft turns into, a cruel product of the horror inflicted on him, a troubled and angry man who terrifies his own children. It is Haft’s son, Alan, who despite his rocky relationship with his father, wrote the book of Haft’s life and who Kleist was in direct contact with when writing this book. 
Anyone who has read ’The Pianist’, Spiegelman’s ‘Maus' or the survival accounts of Primo Levi and Tadeuz Borowski (both went on to commit suicide) will know how generally any holocaust survivor story demonstrates human nature’s ability to fight in bitterest of suffering. Despite being subjected to unimaginably intolerable misery these individuals survived and ’The Boxer’ is no exception. There are numerous themes that unite all these real life versions of events however, the most prominent for me is the aftermath, the repercussions of living with such darkly terrible memories. Are these survivors people, or are they haunted shells confining the shadows of their past within. All of these stories demonstrate how it isn’t just about achieving your freedom but dealing with the horrors that more often will stay with you for ever.

Kleist is very clearly an artist of note, he is able to adapt his style in accordance with his subject matter. The artwork of one of his other titles ‘Cash: I see a darkness’, forgive me for stating the obvious, effectively utilises inky darkness in virtually every panel. Yet for this book Kleist's style is Eisner-esque, in brush and ink, and has a certain slick grittiness with less use of shadows and blackouts, and achieves abstract detail as required. Kleist also effectively and intelligently utilises flashback imagery throughout the story giving it a beautiful cinematic edginess. 

One thing I will reveal about last page of this book is the list of awards it’s already won in Germany including: German children’s literature award for Best non fiction book, 2013, Best German book award at the Munich comic festival, 2013 and Grand Prix de Lyon at Lyon BD festival. 

Subtle, insightful and astutely executed, if there is one graphic novel you read this year, make it this.

I would put money on a film option already being in the pipes. Reinhard Kleist’s ’The Boxer' is due for UK release in a couple of months.

A few photos from the launch...

Artist and writer Reinhard Kleist (on the right) in conversation with writer Paul Gravett (on the left)

My signed copy of the book (including amazing hand drawn ink sketch done on the spot - why don't all artists do this?)

Monday, 10 March 2014

A note after blog month..

So after the self imposed challenge of writing a post everyday for a month, what exactly has it done for me?

Well, firstly I had no clue this is not a completely new idea which I came up with all by myself. I don’t mind admitting I am secretly a bit gutted about this, but onwards and upwards. Believe it or not people have written books of a month’s worth of blog post ideas.

Wordpress even conducted their own month blog challenge in January, although I would never have been organised enough to start merrily posting as of new years day. So, I didn’t invent this challenge and basically everybody’s doing it and I can totally see why. 

After attending ‘blog school’ and having a makeover from my fairy blogmother, Greg Thorpe (who’s very good blog is here!), I started February with a shiny new blog. However, this has now left me with a dormant wordpress blog that VERY confusingly is still getting readers - proof there are people out there that will sign up to anything, even dead blogs. All is not lost though as I have now become greedy. I have two blogs, so why not write two? Yes that’s right, I will be going back to the drawing board and reviving wordpress soon, so watch this space. 

I conducted product reviews, book reviews and commented on current affairs and a variety of charitable causes. I also conducted recipe tests, including drinking coffee filled with melted butter, which I hope demonstrates some of the lengths I will go to in the name of some good, or failing good amusing, reading. 

It was tough, there were days where I absolutely confess to pulling posts out of my backside and virtually every one was written on the day of publication, usually in the evening, still with a sink of washing up weighing on my mind. At no point did I succeed in creating a store of articles, I had planned to write a week’s worth in a day. That didn’t happen. However, in the month of February my entire household endured sickness that required both my children to stay off nursery for a week. We even had to cancel youngest’s birthday party for fear of infecting our friends. I’d already bought enough multicoloured fondant icing to successfully grout a bathroom, but with no birthday cake to create, it continues to gather dust in a corner.

After the wettest winter on record causing countless families to lose their homes and livelihoods, it pains me greatly to also cite a minor flood as another potential game ender for me in blog month. Especially as it was my fault, having over zealously yanked the drainage pipe of my washing machine whilst cleaning the filter. However, it was bad enough for me to curse myself for committing to daily blogging with no washing machine and a utility room that now needs to be re-floored.

Yet when the 28th February finally came, I felt there was a blog shaped void in my life. I loved doing it and in this last week I have missed it. I entered every new project and outing with vigour and interest. I became shallow, rating everything as only worth doing if it was blog worthy. I attended several restaurants (yes ok, I have small children, I went to one solitary restaurant) and photographed my food, the table settings, even the toilets, whilst making notes on my phone, after rubber necking another table’s food, about how I wished I’d had the lobster bisque starter purely for the mini silver soup terrine it was served in. This restaurant review didn’t make the cut. Jay Rayner had already done it and was far more sensible, not to mention  well informed, about the origins of the food and he didn’t get caught up in details like the texture of the paper towels in the ladies. In fact I doubt it would have crossed his mind to include a photo from inside the toilet cubicles (still curious? Read his review here). 

While I am pleased I never used anything like THIS. Which is only because I just don’t think anyone would find the contents of my fridge interesting (rotting humous anyone?) nor did I read any books like this one - CLICK HERE. I am now such an expert I will be writing one in direct competition to this, not really. 

Of course now I’ve done it there are blog challenges popping up every bloody month including this one: which starts in April, and where does this leave me? Undecided. For now.