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Posts Tagged ‘books’

Just realised that my posts for July and August have been sitting as drafts for ages without being published.  So, this is what I have been up to apart from going to visit my friends and family in the UK and Spain over the summer:

Books

Small Island & The Long Song (Andrea Levy) : the best kid of historical fiction as I learnt about Jamaica through great characters and storytelling

Let The Great World Spin (Colum McCann) : my favourite book so far this year which really captures New York

The Tiger’s Wife (Tea Obreht) : magical mix of superstition, tigers and civilian suffering during wars

Conversations with Myself (Nelson Mandela) : the great man in his own words

The Heart of Haiku (Jane Hirshfield) : everything I wanted to know about haiku and more

Cinema

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky) : who knew ballet could be so scary

The Fighter (David O’Russell) : ever since watching this film I have become much better at keeping my hands up and defending myself when boxing

Saw the two films above on my plane flights and the ballerinas turned out to be just as tough as the boxers

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (David Yates) : my favourite book in the series and the film lived up to my expectations

Another Earth (Mike Cahill) : interesting and original concept which stays in your mind – a duplicate Earth appears in the sky and scientists discover it is exactly the same as ours, even with the same people. Does this give you a second chance at life ?

Senna (Asif Kapadia) : best sports documentary I have seen. I idolised Ayrton Senna so the film made my cry all over again despite the fact I knew exactly what was going to happen

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On a recent flight I watched Fire in Babylon, a fascinating documentary on the West Indies cricket team. I remember watching their test matches against England when I was a teenager but am ashamed to admit that at the time I had no idea of the political importance of their victories.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is when a member of the crowd holds up a sign saying “Black Wash” after the West Indies beat England 5-0,  a resounding win over their former colonial masters.

The trailer for the film sums it up perfectly, “They brought the world to its knees and a nation to its feet”, as the team accomplished a winning streak of 29 Test series between 1980 and 1995. As the great Sir Viv Richards says in the film: “My bat was my sword.”

I would have known a lot more if Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island, had been around when I was young. She tells the story of Jamaican immigrants to England in 1948 just after they had fought for the Empire in the Second World War.

Although it is very recent history, it is shocking to read about what people went through purely because of the colour of their skin: “A devout Christian, Curtis was asked not to return to his local church for his skin was too dark to worship there” and “Louis now believed bloodyforeigner to be all one word.”

 One Englishwomen says: “All those coons eyeing her and her daughters up every time they walked down their own street. Hitler invading couldn’t have been any worse.”

When Hortense, who had been a teacher in Jamaica, arrives in England she asks herself how the “Mother Country”, which she has known all her life, does not know her:

Can this be that fabled relation you heard so much of? This twisted-crooked weary woman. This stinking cantankerous hag. She offers you no comfort after your journey. No smile. No welcome. Yet she looks down at you through lordly eyes and says, ‘Who the bloody hell are you?’

I imagine my parents received similar reactions when they arrived in England from Bangladesh in the 50s and 60s. Yet it is heartening to see that progress is possible as our family is now a wonderful mix from Bangladesh, Spain and England.

Andrea Levy’s latest novel, The Long Song, is set even further back in Jamaica when “the coffin with the words, ‘Colonial slavery died July 31, 1838, aged 276 years,’ was lowered into the ground” and “a joyous breeze blew.”

The treatment of the slaves was even more shocking , including women:

Half-way between the town and Shepperton Pen, they had come upon a naked slave woman, tied to a coconut tree by her arms. As her feet could not reach the floor, she was slowly spinning in the sun’s heat. Dangling juicy as roasting meat upon a spit, crows kept pecking at her to test her as food. As she spat and kicked to shoo them, she would start to spin faster. She had been beaten before being tied up—with a stick or a short riding whip—for her skin, dusty and black, was in places torn off, creating a speckled pattern that appeared like dappled sunlight upon her.

and children:

The small boy had been running with messages to rebel slaves—a crime—there was no doubt in Howarth’s mind upon that. But the boy was then sealed into a barrel which was roughly pierced with over twenty-five long nails hammered into the shell. The boy, still trapped within that spiky cask, was then rolled down a hill.

This further explains why the West Indies cricket team was so important:

And for any number of legendary West Indian fast bowlers – a proud lineage that ran from Andy Roberts to Curtly Ambrose – the ball was a bullet. If the odd bruise was inflicted, the odd bone broken, that was as nothing compared to the suffering of the African people under the yoke of slavery. (The Daily Telegraph)

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“The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.

She lies on the bed beside Claire, above the sheets. The faint tang of the old woman’s breath on the air. The clock. The fan. The breeze.

The world spinning.”

These are the final words of Colum McCann’s fantastic novel, Let the Great World Spin, whose title comes from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, Locksley Hall.

This made me turn to a Folio collection of Tennyson’s poetry I have been keeping on my bedside table since listening to a recent In Our Time podcast on In Memoriam, the poet’s famous elegy to his great friend Arthur Hallam, who died in 1833.

In my book Ruth Padel explains that Tennyson wrote “Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change” after taking the first train from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830: “ I thought that the wheels ran in a groove. It was a black night and there was such a vast crowd round the train at the station that we could not see the wheels. Then I made this line.”

My favourite passage from Locksley Hall is:

Love took up the glass of Time, and turned it in his glowing hands;

Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.

Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might;

Smote the chord of Self, that, trembling passed in music out of sight.

Many a morning on the moorland did we hear the copses ring,

And her whisper thronged my pulses with the fulness of the Spring.

Many an evening by the waters did we watch the stately ships,

And our spirits rushed together at the touching of the lips.

However this love proved to be “falser than all fancy fathoms, falser than all songs have sung”:

As the husband is, the wife is: thou art mated with clown,

And the grossness of his nature, will have weight to drag you down.

He will hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force,

Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.

Ouch !

Tennyson fared better in love in 1850 when he married Emily Selwood, whom he had first met 20 years before, and he published In Memorium that year. Padel writes: “The marriage lit up the inner darkness sealed when Hallam died, allowing Tennyson to let go of that grief, or at least go public about it. Now the pain was alchemised into an order bearable to him and shareable with others.”

Section L is my favourite example of the emotion that Tennyson shares so beautifully :

Be near me when my light is low,

When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick

And tingle, and the heart is sick,

And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame

Is racked with pangs that conquer trust;

And Time, a maniac scattering dust,

And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,

And men the flies of latter spring,

That lay their eggs, and sting and sing

And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,

To point the term of human strife,

And on the low dark verge of life

The twilight of eternal day.

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One of my favourite things about the Kindle is being able to buy long essays or short stories in the form of Kindle singles such as The Heart of Haiku by Jane Hirshfield, an American author and poet.  I have always wanted to know more about haiku and was able to satisfy my curiosity for just 99 cents.

Hirshfield uses her own poetic skills to write beautifully about the poetry, life and journeys of Matsuo Bashō, who in the seventeenth century, “substantially remade the shape of Japanese literature, by taking a verse form of almost unfathomable brevity and transforming it into a near-weightless, durable instrument for exploring a single moment’s precise perception and resinous depths.”

Bashō taught his students “that if you see for yourself, hear for yourself, and enter deeply enough this seeing and hearing, all things will speak with and through you” and used this philosophy to master image-based poems of seventeen sound units, written in lines of five, seven, and then five units each.

They combine the concepts of  sabi which is “to feel keenly one’s own sharp and particular existence amid its own impermanence” and wabi, which is to appreciate the beauty of the most ordinary circumstances and objects.

Two of my favourite haikus in the book:

spring leaving –

birds cry,

fishes’ eyes filled with tears

yukuharu ya tori naki uo no me wa namida

a hangover ?

who cares,

while there are blossoms

futsukayoi monokawa hana no aru aida

Hirshfield shows that the form has been brought bang up to date in the 21st century with more than 19,000 haiku about Spam, “Spamku”, being posted online.

She provides proof that “even the briefest form of poetry can have a wing-span of immeasurable breadth.”

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I don’t expect to be introduced to new poetry when flicking through channels on my TV but that is what happened this weekend. I caught the end of In Her Shoes and it included a moving recital of I Carry Your Heart With Me by E E Cummings – I cried even though I hadn’t seen the beginning of the film.

So now, not only am I going to have to read more poems by E E Cummings, but I am also going to read Jennifer Weiner’s novel on which the film was based.

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On a timely basis, I have just finished reading Nelson Mandela: Conversations with Myself, a collection pulled together from the great man’s letters, notebooks, taped conversations, prison diaries, calendars, and an unfinished autobiography.

A few on my favourite quotes:

“Those Greek plays are really worth reading. It’s like the classics, you know, the works of Tolstoy and so on, because after reading … that literature, you always come out  … feeling very elevated and your sensitivities to … fellow beings having been deepened. It is one of the greatest experiences you can have” (page 113);

“Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark and grim, who try over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliations, and even defeat” (page 175);

“The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. These are, off course, important in measuring one’s success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within reach of every soul – are the foundation of one’s spiritual life. ” (page 211);

“Through peace you will be able to convert, you see, the most determined people, the most committed to the question of violence, and that is the method we should follow.” (page 238)

“Compromise is the art of leadership and you compromise with your adversary and not your friend ….In every dispute you eventually reach a point whether neither party is altogether right or altogether wrong. When compromise is the only alternative for those who seriously want piece and stability.”

(Thank you Anna for a perfect birthday present)

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This weekend  was the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945 which instantly killed an estimated 70,000 people. So it seemed an appropriate time to revisit Lauren Redniss’ book, Radioactive, Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout.

As much as I love my Kindle there are certain books it can’t replace and this is one of them. For starters, the cover of the book glows in the dark, and secondly, part of the beauty of the book is being able to look at Redniss’ fantastic art work against the layout of words on the physical page in a typeface that she invented.

A book about the discovery of radiation cannot miss out Hiroshima and Redniss interviews Sade Kasakoa, who was 13 at the time of  the bombing, and the book includes pictures of  the paper cut-outs that Kasakoa made to illustrate her father’s injuries:

My father, lying on a door board, looked dead. His face was swollen and his clothes burned off, leaving him naked. I could identify him just by his voice .. His body was burned not only on the surface but also inside….

Then I looked up and saw a strange scene. People, whose bodies looked whitish, had their hands up in front of their chests with something tattered hanging from them. They were staggering in procession toward the military hospital, covered in ash. That tattered thing was their peeling skin.

However  the book begins in 1911 with a lecture on radium by dancer Loïe Fuller, before the world had witnessed the potential destructive power of radiation and radium is seen as a form of nature’s magic.

Redniss then uses her artistic talents to illustrate and illuminate the history of radiation, the history of the Curies and their passion for discovery, which came together in their passion for one another:

With the constant companionship that accompanied their research, the Curies’ love deepened. They cosigned their published findings. Their handwritings intermingle in their notebooks. On the cover of one black canvas, laboratory log, the initials M and P are scripted directly one atop the other.

They had a daughter, Irene, and when she was two, Marie Curie began her research into radioactivity – a word Marie coined – as she changed the foundation of chemistry.

In 1903 Marie Curie became the first woman in France to receive a doctorate and in 1905 the Curies collected their Nobel Prize. After Pierre’s death in 1906, Marie was offered her late husband’s post at the Sorbonne and she became the first woman professor in the 650-year history of the French university. In 1911 Marie Curie became the first person, man or woman, to win a second Nobel Prize.

In 1935, a year and a half after Marie Curie’s death, Irene and her husband Frederic Joliot-Curie, won the Nobel prize for their discovery of artificial radiation as they worked together, just like her parents.

This may not be surprising as cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstander points out in the book that in some ways, love is just like radiation:

the key question is, no matter how much you absorb of another person, can you have absorbed so much of them that when that primary brain perishes, you can feel that that person did not totally perish from the earth …because they live on in a ‘second neural home’?

In the wake of a human being’s death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of those who were dearest to them…Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in whose who remain…a collective corona that still glows.

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