Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Reviewing The Conductor and The Beauty of Humanity Movement

A bad attack of flu left me very little energy, needing to retreat to bed  every day after only a few hours of mild activity. Besides sleeping, I managed to put in some good reading. Three books by Sarah Quigley, NZ-born author now resident in Berlin, starting with The Conductor (2011, Vintage Book) and today, Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Movement (2010, Doubleday). Camilla Gibb is Canadian. Both women have doctorates from Oxford; they're about the same age, I think - mid to late forties. Quigley's D.Phil is in literature and Gibb's in Social Anthropology.

Their books are cultural tours de force: Quigley's conductor is Russian, a musician, living in Stalin's Leningrad during the siege, Gibb's Vietnamese live in modern-day Hanoi. I have not visited either country, so I may be ill placed to evaluate the veracity of their characters. I found myself trusting what was described which doesn't always happen. All the more so when I realised that Sarah Quigley lived for a while in what used to be East Berlin - not the Soviet Union, but a State similar in its Communist ethos. I wonder whether Camilla Gibb has a Zen connection which helped bring Vietnamese Buddhist culture alive for her.

Most of the important characters are male. They proliferate in The Conductor - various friends, teachers, critics. No female voice at all, except for an enchanting chapter dedicated to a girl in love with her wonderful cello. It's a bit like reading Anna Karenina - all those Russian names - though Quigley has done her best to simplify them for us.  Gibb is less demanding: she has limited herself to two men and one woman in Beauty. Her woman, Maggie, who grew up in the USA, is much less interesting than either Hung, the wise, humble man who cooks perfect pho, and Tu, the young tourist guide. These are believable men, according to a aman who read this book .

Quigley writes authoritatively about musi and it was marvellous to be in Shostakovich's mind as he struggled to compose as well as cope with the conflicting demands of his gift and his family. If The Conductor has a fault it lies in the first 100 pages. One has the feeling of wading through somewhat marshy land, hoping for future relief, waiting for the story to acquire a clear dynamic. The characters don't appear very different from each other, being men of a similar age, so that one struggles a little to know whose head one is in. This is not helped by Quigley's tendency to wait to the end of the first paragraph to tell us whose point of view is taken. Having immediately carried on to read two other books by Quigley, Shot (2003, Virago) and After Robert (1999, Penguin), I realise that this slow start and the slight confusion about the characters are a part of her style. I enjoyed all her books. 

Gibb manages transitions in her own particular way - from chapter to chapter and paragraph to paragraph. It is almost amusing to flip the pages and realise that she inserts the POV character's name in the very first sentence - I imagine her going back over her work after the initial drafts and checking that it's there. Gibb's characters are more differentiated - a young man, an old man, a woman, which provides the reader with a track to follow.

I also liked these books because the characters are introspective, complex  and struggling. They struggle like most of us, with complexity, with morality, with their own natures. The writer has approached them with compassion. That compassion awakens a sympathetic chord, at least in this reader.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

How to identify a cliche: the end of a dilemma

A cliche is an expression which is overused, and has been shorn of its original impact in the process. How can one judge when meeting an expression for the first time?

Searching for the words via the search engine of your choice allows an evaluation of the frequency of occurrence.For instance, the words 'technological marvel' - search and pages and pages of references come up.End of dilemma.

Is this obvious? I searched under 'identifying a cliche' and no one mentioned this method. Could everyone be doing this and not writing about it?
  * *
In fact, it is often enough for me to wonder whether I should check, to be practically sure that the expression is a cliche.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015


The book is called We need new names (Chatto & Windus 2013) by NoViolet Bulawayo, a Zimbabwean woman living in the US. Half the book is Zimbabwe and destitution, half the US, and at the transition point between them is this short short chapter How They Left, which provides a powerful answer to any person wanting to know why some Africans are desperate to live in the West or more generally, what it means to be a refugee.

How they left
Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders.Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders, those with ambition are crossing borders, those with loss are crossing borders, those in pain are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing – to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves.

When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky. They flee their own wretched land so their hunger may be pacified in foreign lands, their tears wiped away in strange lands, the wounds of their despair bandaged in faraway lands, their blistered prayers muttered in the darkness of queer lands.

Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical cords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay. They will never be the same again because you just cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same.

Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint in those strange lands because they do not belong, knowing they will have to sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortably lest they be asked to rise and leave, knowing they will speak in dampened whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners of the land, knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth lest they be mistaken for those who want to claim the land as theirs. Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost, look at them leaving in droves.

Americanah (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) by Nigerian woman Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is also excellent. Dressing her hair triggers memories and analysis. African hair has its own character which is different from Western or Asian hair. The way is styled or lacks style expresses to some extent one's state of being - I think that's true of anyone anywhere, man or woman.

Ifemelu's mother wears her lovely hair long, until she becomes a religious fanatic. When Ifemelu first arrives in the US, her hairstyle expresses her desire to fit in, as she attempts to look like an American. Then she adopts the African fashion of braiding, augmenting, relaxing, which is expensive and harmful to her hair, until the wheel turns again and she allows her hair to just be itself.

In Americanah Ifemelu reflects directly on race relations in America via her blog, which is witty and trenchant. The blog's style is viscerally different from the story (where the same issues are less obviously manifest). It muses critically on the state of race relations, on the differences between Africans who migrate to America and Americans born black, on white people's perceptions and behaviours and everyone's misunderstandings. On how little we know about another person's world. "Before I came to America, I didn't know I was black."


Both writers invoke a novel from a previous generation which answers the question How the hell did we get to this? Chinua Achebe, also a Nigerian, wrote the beautiful novel Things fall apart, published in 1958. Like Bulawayo, Achebe writes economically. Their books are short, all the more powerful for their brevity.


From still an earlier generation, Cane by Jean Toomey, published in 1923, is a novel "structured around a series of vignettes on the experiences of African Americans" (Wikipedia). In Americanah Ifemelu reads and loves this book. Toomey's writing does not to fit well into existing categories, much like Toomey himself, an American who did not consider himself a Negro, as they were called then. He would say that he descended from seven different races, Black being just one of them.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

For the benefit of all, without distinction

"In India, the rain, the tree, the river and the Saint are all regarded as symbols of selflessness. Rain comes for the benefit of all - humans, nature and animals equally. The tree offers its shade to all that seek shelter and yields its sweet fruit even to those who hurl stones at the tree to knock the fruit down. The river is also there for everyone. The deer quenches its thirst in the same river as the tiger and a Saint gives his blessing to all without distinction."

From a yoga website.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Don't go back to sleep!

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth
across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep!

    Jalal ad Din Muhammad Rumi (1207-1273)
    From The Essentail Rumi, p. 16. Translated by Coleman Barks

                     * *

Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Take heed!
Do not squander your time!

    Dogen Zenji (1200-1253)
    Evening Gatha

                   * *

Dogen and Rumi were contemporaries.
One in Japan, one in Persia.
How amazing!

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Sarah Arvio, poet

My printer is refusing to print, it says the cartridges are wrong, even though it has worked with those cartridges for a while  - why take against them now?

I don't want to lose what I found via Knopf's poem-a-day free email: a multiple-prize-winning American poet called Sarah Arvio. Here is the beginning of another poem of hers called Animal. My printer's dysfunction has propelled it onto my blog, which I tend to neglect. This Knopfy programme may revive my blog's fortunes. (If interested, sign up to it on their website.)


I am very nervous in myself I
was always nervous as an animal
angling for its home and then homing in

toward a home but never finding it I
was that sort of lost animal although
animals are rarely lost we are lost

as they are not we are the burrowers
in our own dark mud when oh the light and
so on not to be dark or obtuse when

the light is wonderful this wonder that
we should be so dark and lost and the world
was designed to be a home for us or

There is more. You can find it on Brian Brodeur's blog.
The poem is followed by an  interview where she describes how she writes, literally how it happens.
For those who would like to know. 

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Overuse syndrome

I was curious about It's been said before by American lexicographer Orin Hargreaves. Subtitle: A guide to the use and abuse of cliches, OUP, 2014. I thought I'd educate myself.

I abandoned it before reaching half-way: cliches are intrinsically boring, and many cliches gathered together are deadly, even though Mr. Hargreaves' comments about them are agreeable and light. I decided to keep the book for reference, though my son pointed out that any expression giving rise to the slightest doubt is best deleted, and obversely, should there be no doubt, the book would not be consulted either.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Rama Burshtein's first film

P and I watched Fill the Void last night, an Israeli film about a Chassidic family going through a very difficult time. When it ended, I found myself saying: over and over "It is perfect, just perfect."

Like the interior of a jewel box, everything in it is beautiful, miniature, rich with feeling and textures. The characters are passionate, intimately portrayed, the discipline of their lives, the constant exercise of patience, modesty and humility. Much of what happens is understated or not expressed openly, and yet present.

I am particularly interested in the contribution of the Aunt without arms who so resembles her sister, the Mother. We witness a rare quarrel between them, during which the Aunt requests a glass of water, and while they stand face to face by the kitchen sink, the conversation between them shuttles to and fro unimpeded, the Mother holding the glass for the Aunt, who sips through a straw. There is no sense that the Aunt should be grateful nor that she is taking the help she receives for granted. The scene stands in for all the other complicated intimacies of her life, the dressing and undressing, the itching and scratching, the make-up (for both are always made-up, they are beautiful, strong women in their late 40s). No sense of effort, not in the asking for the water, not in the providing of the drink. The Mother completely assumes this burden, it appears to be weightless. It is a model of kindness without condescension, never mentioned between the characters. The Aunt is dependent, physically powerless and yet powerful in her presence as a complete person. She is not married, apparently content with her lot, in contrast to the unmarried women around her who suffer anguished throes about marriage or its elusiveness.

I loved the colours - a kind of golden glow throughout. Nothing appears cheap or tawdry. A wonderful script. Rama Burshtein, you have made a great film. Thank you!