Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán – Mike Robbins

We need to talk about this baggage!

I read this twice; the first time I got a little side-tracked by the story within a story – the book written by Tom; back to him later. The second time though, I read for the sheer pleasure of the South American descriptions, the happy coincidences, and the satisfaction of knowing that everything turned out just as it should, much like it does in a Kate Atkinson novel. The violence, rape, hypocrisy, poverty, drugs, and plain meanness of this world are not spared us. The reality is that refugees are refugees for a reason – and these reasons frequently have their origin in the habits and behaviours of those of us in “developed” countries. Robbins doesn’t hesitate to point this out, and the message is even more timely and relevant today than it was back in the early 1990’s when this book was originally written.

This is the story of Silvia, a refugee from an unnamed South American country who winds up in London after her father is murdered. Her story is every refugee’s: one of  fear, confusion, and a life in limbo. Today the British government (and several others, noticeably Australia’s) would most likely shove her into a detention camp to suffer humiliation for an unknown length of time. In our novel, Silvia is taken up by Harriet and Tom, wealthy and hypocritical “do-gooders” who see the chance of a free “au-pair” to look after their young son. Through carefully constructed flash-backs we learn Silvia’s story. The vibrant descriptions of her life back home transport us to South America. Robbin’s skill takes us immediately and vividly into her home and her life, the car journeys with her family, the terrifying bus trip to escape the murderous military. His acute sense of place is no less effective when describing London locations and characters. Tom is the anti-hero, an egotistical writer so wrapped up in himself and his work that he utterly fails to notice in Silvia the intelligence and talent that she possesses in vastly superior quantities to his own. My only criticism is that although I understand the desired irony of the story within a story, I would have preferred a stronger focus on Silvia’s world (in all aspects), and a different way to point out Tom’s less than stellar qualities.

In his introduction Robbin’s points out that “any book is of its time and is best left there.” I beg to differ – the issue of refugees is, if anything, even more relevant today. I would like to see this book, with a bit of work, possibly longer, republished. These are issues that we all need to be talking about.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The State of Me: Nasim Marie Jafry

The more I read this book the more I liked it, so that by the end I wanted to keep on reading and find out what happens next in Helen’s life. It’s a love story set mainly in Scotland in the 80’s, but it’s also the story of a young woman who contracts the Coxsackie B virus and, following that, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or ME. Helen Fleet narrates her own story, but from time to time a third-person narrator steps in to give a different perspective. Another handy technique is the ‘stranger’ who pops up from time to time to interview Helen and ask questions about the illness. In this way information (all accurate) about ME is imparted without seeming pedantic.

Helen is a typical university student, sharing a flat, going to parties, fancying the older student in the upstairs flat, travelling – until her third year when she gets sick and her normal life grinds to a halt.

We follow Helen’s life, doing the rounds of doctors and tests, the experimental treatments, the worst of the illness and the gradual increase in her ability to live an independent life. She has boyfriends, learns photography, eventually manages to complete her degree and can manage a few hours a week of volunteer work. Throughout it all, the narrator maintains a wry sense of humour and there are some gems to savour: “Jana came with her summer fling… He’s not circumcised, said Jana. Things are a bit baggy down there.”

There’s also the sadness of not living the same kind of life as other young people her age. One evening, after going to the cinema for the first time in years, she writes: “I’d loved the film and was euphoric to be mingling with other cinema-goers. They didn’t know that my head was shifting inside and that I wasn’t going back to my flat with my boyfriend, but back to my parents’ to hibernate.” Another time she writes about going to the careers office on campus: “I feel in awe of all the opportunities, looking through the toyshop window at the treasures I can never have: glittering jobs, glamorous placements, exotic Master’s degrees. I always check, but there are no jobs for four hours a week.” I know just how she feels, and I feel the same when I see positions advertised in wonderful exciting locations that I might once have applied for.

ME is a slightly different experience for each of us and there are many times when I think that the effort of trying to get across to a fully-abled person just how devastating and soul-destroying ME can be is a losing battle. This book does a great job of doing just that.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Time Traveler’s Wife: Audrey Niffenegger

I admit right away that I liked this story. I didn’t expect to. Basically it’s science fiction. The main character, Henry, has a genetic disorder that causes him to dislocate in time whenever he feels stressed, or even when he’s not stressed. It just happens, and when it does, anything he’s wearing gets left behind, creating many difficult and often dangerous situations. The time travel is mind-bendingly (well, for someone with ME it is!) complicated to follow, and I’m not even going to begin to try and explain it here (I can’t). I’m not a fan of this kind of story.

However it’s also a love story, and there’s something so irresistible – for some of us, mainly women I presume – about ‘true love’ that lasts forever and never dies, the kind of love when you know without any doubt whatsoever that that person is the one true love of your life and the absolute certainty of knowing that your feelings are reciprocated. But the agony – and hence the tension in the story – of having circumstances beyond your control pull the two of you apart. It’s a real weepy, no doubt about it! I just watched the trailer for the film, several weeks after having read the book, and I began crying all over again. Aside from any of this, Niffenegger is simply a good writer. She knows how to write, how to make the story and the dialogue feel real. I wasn’t surprised it had been made into a film so quickly. I can understand people not liking the book; there are many one star reviews on Amazon among the flood of positive reviews and the writers bring up good points; but I liked it – and I’m not going to apologize or try to explain any further.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Saint Peter’s Fair (The Cadfael Chronicles IV): Ellis Peters

Good stuff! I’m a big Ellis Peters and Brother Cadfael fan. The books are much better than the ITV series (although Derek Jacobi is excellent) because Peters is such a great writer, paying attention to historical detail, character development, and plot. This Brother Cadfael mystery is set in midsummer in 1139, during a large annual fair that brought merchants (and spies) from far and wide. The battle between King Stephen and Empress Maude for the English crown is gearing up; the Empress, with her half-brother Earl Robert of Gloucester, is in Normandy working to enlist allies in the west of England; different members of the nobility are declaring themselves on the side of one or the other. On the eve of St Peter’s fair in Shrewsbury an important merchant is killed, presumably in connection with a dispute between the town and the abbey. But after his barge is searched and his niece, Emma, appears unconcerned about the loss of some of her belongings, Cadfael becomes suspicious. Two young men, one from the town and one outsider, are also strongly attracted to the beautiful young Emma. Before long a second merchant is found murdered; Cadfael becomes concerned for Emma’s own safety, and it’s clear that this is about more than a mere dispute between merchants. The plot builds to an exciting climax with an audacious rescue amid flames; true love wins the day. Two months after the fair the Empress Maude and Robert of Gloucester land near Arundel.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Big Chief Elizabeth – How England’s Adventurers Gambled and Won the New World: Giles Milton

I’m so glad that the writing of history has improved over the years, and a good history book can be just as exciting to read as any novel. Details linking past and present add colour and interest to what is already a fascinating topic – how Sir Walter Raleigh set out on the task of settling English men and women in the New World. Covering the period from 1582 until 1616 by which time the colony of Jamestown had become self-sufficient, the tremendous challenges facing the would-be colonists are described in detail.

The first few attempts at colonization ran into tremendous difficulties for a variety of reasons: incredibly poor planning, horrendously bad leadership, extreme bad luck in terms of the weather (hurricanes did enormous damage to the ships), and time after time the failure to choose the right people to send: the failure to send women, the failure to send anyone who knew how to cultivate crops, the failure to send people who knew anything about basic survival under tough conditions, and so on. It seems that city men in Elizabethan times were just as (or possibly more than) addicted to gluttony and the easy life as men today - it was the women who did all the work and who finally enabled a colony to survive, once someone had the foresight to send them along.

Here you will find details of the relationship between Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth, the true story of Pocahontas (not the Disney version), and the prescience of King James who wrote that tobacco made “a kitchin of the inward parts of man, soiling and infecting them with an unctuous and oily kinde of soote”. Upon his succession to the throne he quickly imposed heavy taxes on the importation of tobacco. But it was the growing of tobacco that made the colony of Virginia (named after the Virgin Queen) a viable enterprise.

I am forced to admit a terrible ignorance of American history, having always imagined that the “Pilgrim Fathers” were the founders of the English colony. Fortunately Milton has corrected my misperceptions, and I now know that the Pilgrims were only the second colony, founded almost twenty years after Jamestown. An excellent read, and I look forward to correcting misperceptions on other matters of historical interest thanks to Milton.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Shield and the Sword: Ernle Bradford

This is the history of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, from its origins as a hospice for pilgrims established in Jerusalem around 1080 up to the present day – the book was published in 1972, but the order is still in existence and operates around the world today. It is, indeed, the oldest international NGO (non-government organisation) in existence; present day descendants include the St Johns Ambulance Brigade in the UK and Malteser International (www.malteser-international.org/), a German NGO providing emergency medical assistance in places like DR Congo, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar.

The Knights of St John was always an international organisation with members from across Europe. It soon developed from the provision of hospice and hospital services to pilgrims to their protection on the journey to the Holy Land. The early history of the Knights is also the history of the Crusades – the attempts by western Europeans to take over and control the Holy Land, Syria and the Levant. The first crusade began in 1097, and the Christians were finally driven out of the Holy Land in 1291, although Pope Eugenius IV preached a new crusade as late as 1440, but by that time his call was barely heeded. The story of the Crusades is a sorry one, and Bradford does not hesitate to delineate the atrocities and mistakes made by the ruthless and poorly led Europeans.

After their expulsion from the Holy Land, the Knights took over the island of Rhodes and remained there until defeated by the Turks, under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent, in 1522. After a period of homelessness, the Knights moved on to Malta, which many found a poor substitute for Rhodes. It was in Malta that the famous Great Siege of 1565 took place, again against the Turks. This time, however, the Knights and the people of Malta held out against the Turks – though only just. Over time the role of the Knights changed and by the time Napoleon laid claim to Malta the Knights proved indecisive and unable to mount an adequate defence. But the Maltese themselves soon got rid of the French, liking them even less than the Knights, and asked the British to take control of the island. Malta gained independence in 1964.

Their expulsion from Malta could well have been the end of the Order, however it miraculously survived, and the final chapter of the book explains how the Order reinvented itself and continues its existence up until today. This book will be of immense delight to anyone interested in the history of the Crusades, of Rhodes and of Malta. The author provides plenty of fascinating detail while maintaining the reader’s interest throughout – the book is a compact and readable 227 pages long. Highly recommended!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ode to a Banker: Lindsey Davis

I thoroughly enjoy all the Falco mysteries by Davis, and this one is the twelfth in the series. She writes with a wonderful sense of humour and a great eye for detail. Even though the story is set in Rome AD74 it’s as if she had recently visited and learned the daily habits of people – what they ate, what they wore, how they decorated their homes, how fires were put out, how the subtle relationships between men and women were handled, and much more.

Marcus Didius Falco is a private informer who has somehow managed to marry well above his station in life, which keeps him on his toes and provides a constant source of mystery and amusement for the reader trying to figure out the relationship between husband and wife. In this particular story the exact nature of the relationships between a wealthy banker and his first and second wives also contributes to the mystery. The banker is also an arts patron and publisher, and there is much insight into the world of publishing before the days of printing and paper. And even though this book was published in 2000, her insights and parallels between the world of banking in ancient Rome and the scams and hedge funds leading to the banking meltdown of 2008 are quite eerie. The banker is murdered, and Falco has to figure out if this was the result of a banking deal gone wrong, or an angry writer feeling cheated, or a wife becoming overly jealous. A great read!