All posts by Julia

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

I heard George Saunders interviewed on the radio, and intrigued by his idea, exploring the in between place of life after death, I bought the book. Hardcover. The Bardo is a Buddhist concept, at a time after death where you either ascend into nirvana, or descend to be born again.

Lincoln in the Bardo wasn’t an easy read, particularly the opening chapters. Saunders opening prose is dense, recounting historical extracts, almost like a series of footnotes. These are the observations of the people connected to Lincoln at the time of his son, Willie’s, death. It took some perseverance on my part to wade through this bit to find the craft of Saunders’ book. And there’s another matter. Is it a novel? It is a series of narratives, with the historical context, and then a multi-perspective narrative, rather like a play, as several souls in the bardo relate the occurrences on one night in the graveyard, after Willie is interred.

The crux of the story, and yes there definitely is a story, is that Willie Lincoln dies of typhoid fever whilst his parents, the President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, are hosting a lavish party. Lincoln is bereft, and after the funeral, goes back into the crypt and opens the ‘sick box’, and cradles his son. The other souls witness this, causing some consternation. The main narrators are Bevins, Vollman and Rev Early, who don’t really think that they are dead, and the story is the realisation of this process, of where they are, and what happens to them. It is difficult to relate much more without huge spoilers.

Lincoln in the Bardo is about more than Lincoln’s grief; through the narration of the souls in the bardo, it is much wider, an examination of humankind in itself. Every soul has their story, and they carry around something (a thing or a behaviour) that was fixed in their lifetime, or their death. Saunders explores a kind of morality, not that anyone is a judge except the reader. This is the brilliance of the book, and what lingers when the story has been told. Lincoln in the Bardo is puzzling, weird and bold. Like Ella MeanowPea it is clever, and I rate that in a book. It is also refreshing in that it is nothing like anything else I’ve ever read. Would I recommend it? I’m not sure. It is not a book of universal appeal, but if you are prepared to work at it, I think the reader will be rewarded.

Book Review: Beyond The Beautiful Forevers, by Katharine Boo

Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Behind the Beautiful Forevers narrates the fate of three key families within this Mumbai slum, locked together in terrible and tragic circumstances. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting“ in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Fatima, neighbour, born with one leg and a bitter rival of Abdul’s family. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption, and seeks to intervene (and make) from the tragedies of every day.

I bought this book for my husband, at the time of its release, as he had lived and worked in Mumbai. I visited him there a few times, and had become charmed by India and its people. We took a slum tour, in Deravi, Mumbai’s largest slum, a morning that I will never forget. Reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers some years later adds a layer that is hard to accommodate. What left me, after this ‘responsible’ slum tour, was how much pride, hope and ‘place’ was exhibited in these communities. We saw plastic recyclers, tanneries, schools – and the dreaded public loos. We peered in the slum dwellings, and remarked on the beautifully turned out children. We saw mostly smiles. We saw the computer facility, funded by the tours. To coin a phrase, we left only footprints, as it was forbidden to take photographs. This was an experience, and not a zoo. So why has Boo’s book unsettled me? Boo’s book offers little hope, and little sense of community. Neighbours seek to out do each other, make money off each other, none more so than Asha. There is such little kindness in Boo’s account, and that sits at odds with the people we met in India.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a remarkable book. It is well-written, almost novel-like, with tension on every page. It is achingly sad, even more so as it is all true. This isn’t the creation of a novelist, making their darlings suffer. Boo spent three years living in Annawadi, aided by translators, to report on the lives of the people that feature in her book. It is an impressive project, boiled down to a highly engaging, if disturbing, read. I imagine that I will be thinking about it, haunted by it, long after shutting the book.


Book Review: Rising Ground by Philip Marsden

“Why do we react so strongly to certain places? Why do layers of mythology build up around particular features in the landscape? When Philip Marsden moved to a remote creekside farmhouse in Cornwall, the intensity of his response took him aback. It led him to begin exploring these questions, prompting a journey westwards to Land’s End through one of the most fascinating regions of Europe… Marsden reveals that the shape of the land lies not just at the heart of our history but of man’s perennial struggle to belong on this earth.”

I will state boldly, that Rising Ground is another book that I wish I had written. Philip Marsden is a gifted writer, with an ability to conjure up place from the page. He also manages to go beyond the sense of place, and in seeking the ‘spirit’ of it, he connects people to the landscape.

Cornwall is rich in history, and Marsden’s journey west towards Lands End, not taking the well-trodden paths, is fascinating and absorbing. It is a woven narrative with the renovation of the crumbled building his family have moved into, tucked away in old mine country, in the upper reaches of The Fal.

Rather like Robert MacFarlane, each place is a chapter, giving space for Marsden’s descriptions, research and pondering to breathe.  Even before the reader turns the first page of a chapter, Marsden tempts you in with an exploration of the origins of the name of the place – invoking its spirit. It is a journey the reader takes with him, as Marsden is generous with his own process and reflection.

As someone who has been curious about the world, inspired by a wonderful geography teacher in school, and then the subject of my first degree. I have been lucky enough to travel widely, but in coming to Cornwall, I too have found a gravity to place that I have not experienced anywhere else I’ve lived (and I’ve lived in a number of rural and city locations, with four years in the immediate post-Communist Poland). Perhaps his book speaks to me because of my wanderlust, my own curiosity and my joy at feeling home.

Marsden’s writing is sublime, better even than The Levelling Sea, with spine-tingling lines such as:

“There have been times writing this book, trying to reach the meaning of a place across the ages, when I have felt a shadow pass over my desk”

Rising Ground is a wonderful book, and Marsden makes me want to pull on my walking boots and wander the paths less travelled across Cornwall.

Tales of a Scilly-virgin (that’s gig racing to the unititiated)…

The Scillies. World Pilot Gig Championships. WPGC. This is the biggest event in the gig racing calendar, now in its 28th year. It was my first. Actually, it was my second. Last year I was an on-shore spectator, in my slow recovery from the pneumothorax. For my second I had decided, on a whim, to go anyway for the ‘craic’, little expecting to race. Somewhere towards the end of February, with injuries appearing in our crews, Carolyn (I guess my rowing mentor, having built my confidence as a Cox) persuaded me that I would be fit enough in her own encouraging way… “You’ll be fine,” she said. I subbed in with Ladies C, but as the most experienced rower in the crew, I soon had Stroke’s seat. I wasn’t convinced that I was fit enough, until the end of the first race. Training had been hard, some sessions frustrating in that we never seemed to get it together, and I was worried that we had never completed a practice race. Could we last the distance?

Departing Flushing, I had the added anxiety of leaving Bessie (our 9 month-old puppy) in overnight accommodation – the first time I’d left her. I trusted Sarah (Sarah’s Doggie Daycare) implicitly, but I didn’t trust me not to have a little meltdown. As it was, I was choked when I drove away, but the drive to Land’s End Airport gave me the chance to focus on what lay ahead. I was nervous; excited. Having had a year of shut-down emotions, I knew that the flutter in my belly was a good thing. It mattered. It mattered to me that I would do the best I could and that I wouldn’t let the girls down.

Finding Pinnacle in the town dump…

I hadn’t reckoned on the amount of faff around the racing, although it shouldn’t have surprised me. There is always faff with any boating. The super high tides meant that we couldn’t launch and berth our gigs, Penarrow, Pinnacle, and Zawn on Friday evening. That added a task for Saturday morning. However, an hour passed searching for Pinnacle, the gig for Ladies C, We found her in the town dump, with Porthmellon beach supposedly her home for the weekend. That would have split us from the rest of the FMPGC gang, so that wasn’t going to happen. It meant for an early start on Saturday morning, as Lynn had us meet at 08:00 at Pinnacle to launch her and have a practice row, just to get a feel for the conditions and test out the stretchers. Try and settle the nerves. And for me, row with the G-oars for the first time.

Racing Pinnacle through the finish of The Long Race…

The Long Race is the first race, with a 13:00 start time, but with the preparation for the race, it meant an 11:30 assembly. That’s the equivalent length of time to a normal training session. BEFORE A RACE. That was quite a daunting realisation in itself. We won one thing that day, FMPGC Ladies C were first off the beach! Yay! We did the drill of race preparation out to the startline, a routine that I absolutely love. It’s about getting the mindset for racing, getting the body warmed up, and the blood pumping. Of being race-ready. I was nervous, yes, but I owned my nerves. This mattered, and here I was, a year on from major surgery, fulfilling an ambition. I have a view in my mind of the line up on the long race, but I realise that is from watching from the shore, because in the gig, on the line, I was only really aware of the girls behind me, and our cox. Focus. Tap up one, back up. Hold water. Forward to row… and then GOOOOOOO. Our racing start, building the power to get the inertia out of the gig and send her flying. Pinnacle, the oldest gig in our club purchased from Swanage, and favourite to many members. The conditions were lively, with a strong cross-tide and wind, and we were lucky in the lane-draw that we had. We started well, and settled. We were playing tag with Vault, a purple gig, off the line, and then throughout the race. They edged it when our no. 5 caught a crab, and then we pulled back. They were on the bow side of us, to port, and they were the only other gig I took notice of. Ladies C were racing well, in time, Pinnacle felt like she was moving well, the sound of the pins clunking in unison down the gig, like a heart-beat. I knew in the race that this was the best we’d rowed – not the usual drag on stroke as the crew’s timing falters. Pinnacle was light and responsive. This was fun. A feeling that I wasn’t expecting to have in our first race. St Mary’s sheltered us from the worst of the cross-tide and wind as we raced towards the finish. At Lynn’s marker, she asked us if we were up for the race-finish tactics. We were. The last 60 strokes were epic, as we hardened, upped the rate, hardened, and then powered through the finish line, Vault’s hull disappearing from sight. It was only then I looked up, to see an armada of gigs behind us. Not only had we beaten Vault, but we weren’t anywhere near last. As we paddled on, I was close to tears, words choking in my throat. Ladies B were screaming at us, “where did that come from?”. We were an incredible 90 seconds behind them. We were the best we had been, and we had saved it for this day. I was elated, and so, so proud. The girls later said that they just followed me; calm, clear me. Me rowing my best had helped them all. Someone said, Sarah perhaps, that the race isn’t as hard as anything that happened in training. I wasn’t sure that she wasn’t just being ‘kind’, but adrenaline must be the magic ingredient. It didn’t feel as hard, for sure. The data doesn’t lie, and the stats from my Garmin showed me that I had poured my heart and soul into that race. I could not have given any more. Sarah was being straight.

Deferential: Our Cox is always right!

Every Scillies is known for different themes, but I hadn’t appreciated how different the races would be within the regatta. I should know that, being a sailor, but the contrast between the first and second races were epic. The wind had swung around, a bit, and freshened, as forecast. As we were rowing out to the start, Lynn had said that she wasn’t sure that we had it in us to cope with the forecast conditions for that afternoon, but our performance in the morning had given her confidence – and that in us. The second race, however, was a real test for us. The second race runs from Nut Rock, off Tresco, to St Mary’s harbour, with a lively sea running, and a significant headwind. By significant, I mean a Force6, fully in Beaufort’s strong wind category, running at 26kts. The row out to the start was a test of endurance in itself. We could have flown down, but the preparation is all about pace, and rest. Each time we had an easy, we were rolled side-on to the running sea, rocking us sideways. Our No.3 felt queasy, our No.4’s fear of the sea raised its head, so we kept moving. Flying downwind, and then turning to beat our oars and make progress against the headwind. Lynn marking it so that she knew we could row against the conditions. We could. We were going to race. Unfortunately a couple of gigs on the start line couldn’t. In the run of the heats, the slowest go first, and the ladies in Group K were finding it too much, so two, we think, were towed off. This meant that the safety boats were being used to rescue, with no cover for the races. The start of the races were probably delayed by 30 minutes, maybe more. So we were constantly moving, 130-ish crews, trying to stay out of each other’s way. Lining up was horrendous, with unsympathetic officers on the start-line. Doubtlessly stressed, and fed-up of being on the washing machine of the start. They had six more heats to do after ours.

This race was gruelling. A slog into the wind, but our No.3 and No.4 were in trouble. Bex, in three, screamed in pain during the race. She’d put her hip out, and therefore couldn’t pull any weight. The sea conditions had worked their way into our No.4, sapping her of her confidence and therefore her technique. She later said that she was terrified of losing her oar, of it being swallowed by the sea. Once fear sets in, it is hard to rationalise it away. We didn’t really race that race, just marking technique, but we held our group, coming in 10th. We had done enough, but we were all deflated, with one in pain, and one struggling to manage her anxieties.

The weather was forecast to close in on the Saturday night, with rain and strong winds forecast. With the high spring tides, we weren’t sure whether we would need to get Pinnacle back on her trailer, but thankfully, the shared consensus was that the gigs could be left on the beach. I’m not sure I would have had the strength to heave and haul at boat moving. A hot bath and a decent meal was all that I was after. Four of us had supper that night, at the Star Castle, all of us swaying at the table. Faces a-glow from the sun and wind. I can’t tell you what we ate, as I had a slight trance-like feeling. Partly from a body still trying to adjust to a dinner table, but also dazed from the day. Bruised from the second race, and still giddy from the first. Sleep didn’t come easily, and I could hear the rain beating on the window, the wind whistling in the trees. I was a couple of hundred metres from the campsite, feeling grateful that camping wasn’t part of my Scillies experience.

I woke stiff, still slightly numb, like this was happening to someone else, not me. I’m not sure why that was, and I had to fight my way through my own fog, back into ‘owning’ my experience. I stood on the decking, overlooking St Mary’s Sound, talking myself back into my flip-flops. The storm had cleared through, and it was a bright morning. The winds had abated, but were forecast to build again in the afternoon. We had two more races to go.

To be honest, a month on, I can’t really separate these two in my mind. The winds were at odds to the tide, so the sea was choppy, familiar conditions to any seasoned Scillies racer. Familiar enough to us training in The Carrick Roads. There was nothing we couldn’t handle. Only our performance dwindled. We lacked stamina, hardly surprising after our first full race-pace race being the previous day. Bex, our No.3 had been taped up, and had drugged herself up, and was heroic. “I won’t let you down,” she said. Our No.4, after a soggy night in a tent, unrested, continued to battle with her fear, each lick of a wave eroding more and more of her confidence. Our collective hearts went out to her as she struggled. Another not to let us down. I am so proud of her for staying with her crew. Our Cox realised that we had reached our combined limits, with her job to get us to the start and then through to the finish line. For each of the two races, I pulled and pulled, trying to give the girls the same clear signals, roaring a couple of times, but Pinnacle wasn’t moving well, the clunk of the oars on the pins was more rapid gunfire than booming heart-beat. It was dispiriting for all of us when we cleared the line, last in both heats.

Ladies C, between racing, hanging out…

The wait between races felt longer than the previous day, as we wandered about, seeking shelter from the chill wind and willing the clouds to part so that we could have ‘lizard time’ and get some warmth into our stiffening muscles. We talked about the race, and what we needed to do to try and get the rhythm back into our rowing. We came up with ‘reach for the gin,’ to extend the reach of the catch, but we needed a longer word to pace the return. Sip – too short. Slug – still too short. Savour – perfect. Reach for the gin, and saaaaaavvvvoouuurrr. Unfortunately it didn’t work, the girls were definitely slugging. It was later that week that our Cox said she’d run out of things to say to motivate us. She couldn’t work out how to get our now frozen No.4 mentally back in the gig. The tactics for the last race. Different – we were just rowing home from a picnic, and there just happened to be other boats around us. We started well, so Ladies B told us, and in the warm conditions that now blessed us, we couldn’t get it together. We crossed the line shattered, physically and emotionally. I would have said that it wasn’t much of a party for us, rafted up, waiting for the Ladies finalists to come through. I felt disappointed inside, not because we had more to give, because I genuinely believe that we gave our all, and our best. We peaked too soon, and the giddy high of the first, long race was something that I wanted to feel right at the end. The camera doesn’t lie, and when I look at the photo of us rafted up, those are beaming smiles, to a person, and not the faces of a dejected crew. We had exceeded our expectations. We had smashed it in one race, and finished 96th overall. We broke 100, when I didn’t expect to do anything other than finish in the last heat. We deserved to drink deeply on the Prosecco in the gig, and enjoy the celebrations together. Each of us, I know, had done the others proud.

Prosecco-time! Celebrating at the end of the last race…

Our race had finished somewhere around 14:00, we were certainly rafted up and drinking Prosecco shortly after. After the carnage of 146 bevvied up crews heading to the beach, we had the task of getting Pinnacle and Penarrow back onto their trailers. Pinnacle had to go back to the dump. Our work wasn’t done, and it’s surprising how quickly the bubbles dissipate, and you sober up. It was 5 o’clock when we got back to the Hotel, and we hadn’t strayed anywhere to get another drink! Time enough for that.

The legendary Sunday night revelry was immense, and as crazy as folk had described. There is a ‘what happens on Scilly, stays on Scilly’, but nothing I saw was remotely worthy of that as a condition of taking part. Just high-spirited, glorying in the achievement and kind of cohesion of the event. Cohesion in crews, in our club with friendships formed during the long winter training. We drank, danced on the tables, and were a ragged accompaniment to the Cadgwith crew who lead the shanty singing into the early hours of Monday morning. I passed up on shots, jagerbombers, and dancing in The Mermaid. I was beginning to ache through to my bones, and all I wanted was to fall into the arms of sleep, knowing that I would be relatively clear-headed on waking.

The coastal path to Old Town…

Monday was as an important day as the rest of the weekend. We took ‘Tim’s tours’ to Old Town, via the spectacle of the coastal path, ending up in the Old Town Inn for lunch. Most left on the Scillonian at 17:00, running a little late because of the high seas. The ebbing sound of shanties left with them, as the town settled down to its more customary pace, most of the gig-rowers displaced back to the mainland during the day. I had one more night, and one restorative lazy morning, where I went to see for myself a sorry casualty of the weekend’s weather. It would take the next spring-tide to recover her.

A casualty of the strong winds that blew through WPGC 2017

Finally, I checked out of Scilly, a gig-sized hole in my heart, but not before securing the same room-with-a-view for 2018. Never say never…

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by JK Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

In this latest instalment of the Harry Potter series, we roll the clock forwards to Harry and Ginny as parents of three children. The youngest, Albus Severus, is about to embark at Hogwarts School of wizardry.

Albus is the main character, and the Cursed Child narrates his struggles living in the shadow of his famous father. He is not a great wizard, or a particularly enthusiastic one. His best friend is Scorpious Malfoy, son of Harry’s arch-enemy Draco Malfoy. The Cursed Child tells the bumbling antics of these two, with Albus wanting to make an impact, and trying to undo a great harm that involved his dad, with Scorpious up for the adventure. They try to right the wrong of Cedric Diggory’s death. This involves time travel via a Time Tuner to unexpected consequences, as the meddling of time brings Voldemort back from the dead.

Unlike the other Harry Potter books, the Cursed Child is a play. I should begin that I loved the entire Harry Potter series, re-reading all six volumes before JK Rowling released The Deathly Hallows. I forgave her this long book that could have been edited back, for her story-telling and rounding of different threads of plot and character. I didn’t re-read any Potter books for this one, and didn’t even read it immediately on release. If anyone wants to re-read, I would point them to reading The Goblet of Fire, as the Tri-Wizard Tournament is drawn on to develop the plot.

That it was a play didn’t spoil the enjoyment for me, in fact, it was a kind of novelty given the books I’ve read in the last few years. If anything, it made me wish I’d seen it in the west end – but perhaps it will tour, and reach Cornwall…

The plot is cleverly crafted, referencing the Tri-Wizard Tournament in which Harry competed as a young wizard, but it is the themes that touched me most. There is the angst of adolescence, but the antagonist to Albus is his father. It is a neat exploration of the theme of father-son relationships, with orphan Harry having no role model of his own, as he stumbles to reach out to his youngest son.

For any Potterphile this instalment is glorious, and one to devour in one sitting. Ice cream in the intermission optional.

Book Review: Precious and Grace, by Alexander McCall Smith

Another in the series of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, which sees Mma Remotswe and Mma Makutsi solving mysteries in the bosom of Botswana. This is the 17th in the series, and is as predictable and as comforting as a pot of roobush tea.

The characters are the same, and are as you left them. The same kinds of things happen. It is not exciting reading, but it is engaging. It the literary equivalent of putting your feet up and hearing from old friends.

Of course there are problems to solve, a white van to be driven. Rich fruit cake to be eaten at the Orphanage. There is a certain rhythm that McCall Smith takes the reader through. And yet, despite its predictability, I am charmed by the books, the happenings, and the loose plot anchored by the characters we love. What endures is the themes. This one is forgiveness. Beautifully executed by McCall Smith, which remains long after the book is closed. Charming and rewarding. What else is there, at one level? It is like being kissed by the Botswanan sun. No bad thing.

Book Review: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

From Kristin Hannah’s website (as I couldn’t fathom, again, how to describe it. Lazy me).

FRANCE, 1939
In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

This book was a gift. A mother and daughter, both who’d adored and were moved to tears by The Nightingale. We shared a love of All The Light They Cannot See, The Night Circus, both spectacular books in their own rights. The Nightingale was a shadow in comparison. In truth, I nearly abandoned it. The writing strangled me, in a cliched, sycophantic noose. In the dilemma of whether to continue, or not. I sought out some reviews – the readership split. Some glowing, some disparaging.

In April, I took a five hour train ride to London; this might be the space to get me over the hump, the desire to throw the book against the wall. Several reasons, Kristin Hannah is a successful novelist, she makes income from her work. This was slush in places. A better edit, and a better discipline in writing. That irked me. In the early pages of the book, I could have photocopied a page, and edited the hell out of it – superlative, cliche, over-writing. It smacks of early draft writing in places. And then the crux of historical novel writing, credibility. Lazy Americanisms in the European setting, when in WWII, this was not influence (that really came later). Language that rubbed, like sand between damp toes. Sooner or later, it’s going to blister.

And yet, I went back to it. The story was one that needed to be told, the female heroes of the French Resistance, quietly going about their work. Hannah has a good story, this reader had to work, patiently, for it to be revealed. Her characters, moved her plot along, yes. Some were better defined than others, but the relationships let the story down. A perfect husband, sent to war. Sisters, one feral one good. A bad father. A mother died too soon. A kind Nazi. A sadist Nazi. A rugged lover who dared not to love. These were all a bit ‘flat’. No one that I really cared about as the story developed, And yet, at the close, as the threads of the past and the present knotted together, I was moved. The story shone through.

A month since I read it, and I’m still not sure whether to recommend it or not. That’s clever in its own right.