“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

Willa, whose name may have been inspired by the celebrated American writer Willa Cather, has inherited a suburban house in New Jersey which is unfortunately falling down through lack of foundations. This is perhaps a metaphor for a middle class family fallen on hard times, so “unsheltered” from both personal problems plus those of a world threatened by climatic change and the collapse of capitalism, to name a couple of issues. Willa has to cope with a handsome, charming but unreliable husband who seems unable to keep his academic posts, even when it is not his fault, in addition to disabled father-in-law “Old Nick”, free-spirit, prickly daughter “Tig”, and son Zeke, traumatised by his wife’s post-natal suicide leaving him with an infant son he will inevitably dump on his mother.

This storyline interweaves in alternate chapters with that of a family from 1871, a century and a half previously, who occupied the same house in Vineland, one of the “Nineteenth-Century Utopias Gone to Hell”. Willa’s unlikely counterpart is Thatcher Greenwood, the earnest new science teacher whose passion for Darwin’s theories and other fresh discoveries such as the existence of molecules, are ahead of the times, even judged “heretical” in the conservative, pious small town community. With his pretty but shallow wife Rose, who cannot come to terms with the need to economise, nor give her husband the support he needs, the situation is reminiscent of Doctor Lydgate and his wife Rosamond in “Middlemarch”. Thatcher finds a kindred spirit in his neighbour, the eccentric investigator of spiders and carnivorous plants, botanist and thinker Mrs Mary Treat.

Such is the standing of the bestseller, “The Poisonwood Bible”, with its brilliant first part on the inflexible American missionary who drags his family off to the Congo to cultivate the land and convert the local people without understanding either, that it feels presumptuous to find fault with this book. I was also sufficiently fascinated by the idea of climate change causing Monarch butterflies to migrate to the Appalachians to forgive the tedious passages in “Flight Behaviour”. Yet much as I wanted to enjoy “Unsheltered”, written by a scientist with a sincere desire to explore environmental and social issues, and based on thorough research of the real-life Vineland and Mary Treat, who corresponded with Darwin, I found it intolerably heavy going, bogged down in the flaws increasingly evident in earlier novels, without enough redeeming features despite the potentially interesting themes.

The style is too convoluted, digressive and crammed with indigestible detail. The mostly undeveloped, two-dimensional characters indulge in contrived, stilted conversations which are an all too obvious device for information dumps and debates on what we should think about important issues, with “incorrect” ideas given a put-down, if only in thought, by right-thinking people like Willa. There’s also a tad too much of the saccharine tone: when Mrs Treat unexpectedly “twinkled” over Thatcher’s admiration for her tarantula house, my heart sank.

In the midst of all her domestic ties, former journalist Willa is intrigued to find out more about Mary Treat, but there is not enough to tie together the two strands which might have been more eengaging if divided into two separate novels, or as some have suggested a straightforward piece of non-fiction on the state of our society.

“The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller – Doomed Beauty

Despite as a rule giving supernatural and magic realism a wide berth, I find Greek and Roman myths and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey intriguing examples of storytelling and creative writing from nearly three thousand years ago. With an academic background in the Classics, Madeline Miller has produced a vividly imagined modern take on the famous drama of the warrior Achilles and his friend and lover Patroclus. After a decade of research, she has crafted a tightly plotted tale to which we can relate, despite the different values and customs of the day, through the well-developed main characters and dialogue which is modern, without jarring.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Patroclus, a Greek prince who is exiled from his unloving father’s kingdom at the age of only nine for having accidentally killed a boy who bullied him. At the court of the kindly King Peleus, Patroclus catches the eye of his charismatic son Achilles, and the two become firm friends and eventually lovers. With the sea goddess Thetis for a mother, Achilles is fated to become immortalised in memory as the greatest warrior of his generation, the price being that he will die young. This seems likely to happen sooner than he and Patroclus might wish, since the Greek kings and princes are bound by an oath to fight for the return to Menelaus of his beautiful wife Helen, who has been abducted (perhaps willingly) by the reckless Prince Paris of Troy.

For a Me Too protagonist this book may seem beyond the pale, the treatment of women as booty along with golden goblets, slavery and rape of women being taken for granted, often at the hands of the men who have slain their male relatives in battle. Even female deities do not escape this: the virtuous Peleus was rewarded by the gods by being allotted the sea-nymph Thetis to give him a child, but was expected to use brute force to overcome her resistance.
In a confined Mediterranean natural world where so much is unknown or inexplicable, no one in this book questions long-held superstitions, the role of the capricious gods in determining the course of events or the “pecking order” of the deities, in which Thetis, though powerful by human standards may have to beg Zeus for a favour, or be unable to explain a prophecy from the Fates, “well-known” for their riddles. With her eyes “dark as sea-wet rocks and as jagged”, her clinging dress “shimmering like fish-scale”, she sustains a vicious contempt for Patroclus. “He is not worthy of you” she tells her son, although events may prove otherwise.

I liked the lighter moments of humour in the blend between fantasy and practicalities as when kindly centaur and teacher of men Chiron is disappointed to hear that the boys have been taught to ride: “Forget what you learned. I do not like to be squeezed by the legs or tugged at”. Patroclus found “the centaur’s gait was less symmetrical than a horse’s…I slipped alarmingly on the sweat-slick horsehair.” On first meeting, Patroclus is fascinated by “that impossible suture of horse and man, where smooth skin becomes gleaming brown coat”.

Although the love between Patroclus and Achilles is portrayed with sensitivity, it seemed to me like a rather feminine take on male love. Similarly, the blood and guts of battle appear somewhat sanitised in the protracted Trojan War, with the Greeks setting off from their camps on the beach across a plain to reach the city walls, rather like a road construction gang going off to work. Admittedly, the book builds up to a violent climax, perhaps all the stronger for brutality having been underplayed earlier.

As Achilles loses the innocence of youth and starts exploiting his reputation as a fighter to challenge the corrupt actions of the unpleasant war leader Agamemnon, the unthinking acceptance of the glory of prowess in battle gives way to more complex considerations of the misuse of power, even with good intentions, which may lead to stubborn pride and hubris. Apart from a rather sentimental final paragraph, if you can cope with a ghostly spirit “the faintest shiver in the air” as the deceased narrator, the novel achieves a condensed but quite neat and thought-provoking ending. The simple value of human love, like that between Achilles and Patroclus may be shown to have more worth than artificially god-fuelled fighting skills. The desire to be a mere mortal may win out over the heartless arrogance of Pyrrhus, the unfortunate son of Achilles whom Thetis tried unsuccessfully “to make.. a god”.

I was prompted to read this by reviews of Pat Barker’s “The Silence of the Girls”, which has a feminist take on the story of Achilles and Patroclus from the viewpoint of Briseis, cast as a Trojan king’s daughter rather than the Anatolian village girl of this version. Although women play a much smaller part in Madeline Miller’s story, I found her tale less viscerally violent with a more subtle and satisfying plot and the characters of Achilles and Patroclus much more fully developed, complex and arousing empathy. It’s worth reading the two novels for comparison.

“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

Willa, whose name may have been inspired by the celebrated American writer Willa Cather, has inherited a suburban house in New Jersey which is unfortunately falling down through lack of foundations. This is perhaps a metaphor for a middle class family fallen on hard times, so “unsheltered” from both personal problems plus those of a world threatened by climatic change and the collapse of capitalism, to name a couple of issues. Willa has to cope with a handsome, charming but unreliable husband who seems unable to keep his academic posts, even when it is not his fault, in addition to disabled father-in-law “Old Nick”, free-spirit, prickly daughter “Tig”, and son Zeke, traumatised by his wife’s post-natal suicide leaving him with an infant son he will inevitably dump on his mother.

This storyline interweaves in alternate chapters with that of a family from 1871, a century and a half previously, who occupied the same house in Vineland, one of the “Nineteenth-Century Utopias Gone to Hell”. Willa’s unlikely counterpart is Thatcher Greenwood, the earnest new science teacher whose passion for Darwin’s theories and other fresh discoveries such as the existence of molecules, are ahead of the times, even judged “heretical” in the conservative, pious small town community. With his pretty but shallow wife Rose, who cannot come to terms with the need to economise, nor give her husband the support he needs, the situation is reminiscent of Doctor Lydgate and his wife Rosamond in “Middlemarch”. Thatcher finds a kindred spirit in his neighbour, the eccentric investigator of spiders and carnivorous plants, botanist and thinker Mrs Mary Treat.

Such is the standing of the bestseller, “The Poisonwood Bible”, with its brilliant first part on the inflexible American missionary who drags his family off to the Congo to cultivate the land and convert the local people without understanding either, that it feels presumptuous to find fault with this book. I was also sufficiently fascinated by the idea of climate change causing Monarch butterflies to migrate to the Appalachians to forgive the tedious passages in “Flight Behaviour”. Yet much as I wanted to enjoy “Unsheltered”, written by a scientist with a sincere desire to explore environmental and social issues, and based on thorough research of the real-life Vineland and Mary Treat, who corresponded with Darwin, I found it intolerably heavy going, bogged down in the flaws increasingly evident in earlier novels, without enough redeeming features despite the potentially interesting themes.

The style is too convoluted, digressive and crammed with indigestible detail. The mostly undeveloped, two-dimensional characters indulge in contrived, stilted conversations which are an all too obvious device for information dumps and debates on what we should think about important issues, with “incorrect” ideas given a put-down, if only in thought, by right-thinking people like Willa. There’s also a tad too much of the saccharine tone: when Mrs Treat unexpectedly “twinkled” over Thatcher’s admiration for her tarantula house, my heart sank.

In the midst of all her domestic ties, former journalist Willa is intrigued to find out more about Mary Treat, but there is not enough to tie together the two strands which might have been more eengaging if divided into two separate novels, or as some have suggested a straightforward piece of non-fiction on the state of our society.

A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan

Bored with her law degree course in Paris, drifting through a comfortable but passionless relationship with somewhat possessive fellow-student Bertrand, Dominque is intelligent and introspective, with a sharp wit, yet at around twenty still quite inexperienced and immature. So she is ripe for seduction by Bertrand’s attractive, worldly-wise uncle Luc, who claims to see in her a kindred detached, cynical spirit and suggests they embark on a short affair. She cannot resist the temptation, despite not wishing to hurt either Bertrand or Luc’s kindly wife Françoise who wants to buy her smart clothes and generally mother her.

All too predictably, Dominique gets more than she bargained for. Will the affair end in tragedy, or leave her wiser, shaken out of her pose of treating life as absurd, living as she does in the 1950s existentialist Paris of Sartre and his friends? With her spare, skilfully honed prose, Sagan captures a sense of place and the spirit of the times, also managing to evoke empathy with Dominique, despite her rather unappealing passivity at times and perpetual self-absorption. She sustains an underlying sense of nihilism buoyed up with moments of wry humour and false gaiety, ending on an upbeat philosophical note, which may prove short-lived.

Already a bestselling author at the age of eighteen with “Bonjour Tristesse”, Sagan is impressive in her precocious ability not only to construct a sharply observed, tight novella, but also to portray the psychology of a young woman without a clear sense of direction, who finds herself wanting what she cannot have, yet dissatisfied by what is available. The fact Sagan was so close in age to her subject gives the novel authenticity, although she was adamant at the time that her books were not autobiographical, rather captured moments of life.

Reading more about her life I learned how Sagan became addicted to alcohol and drugs, had a string of unhappy relationships, apart from with the fashion designer Peggy Roche, had to give up recorded interviews in later life after turning up once too often haggard, emaciated and in a confused state and died with heavy debts at the age of only 69. Perhaps she had more in common with her characters than she cared to admit, as regards an aching void beneath the brittle hedonism.

This novel is best read in French to appreciate the style, which adds depth to an otherwise slight tale.

“Un certain sourire” by Françoise Sagan

Bored with her law degree course in Paris, drifting through a comfortable but passionless relationship with somewhat possessive fellow-student Bertrand, Dominque is intelligent and introspective, with a sharp wit, yet at around twenty still quite inexperienced and immature. So she is ripe for seduction by Bertrand’s attractive, worldly-wise uncle Luc, who claims to see in her a kindred detached, cynical spirit and suggests they embark on a short affair. She cannot resist the temptation, despite not wishing to hurt either Bertrand or Luc’s kindly wife Françoise who wants to buy her smart clothes and generally mother her.

All too predictably, Dominique gets more than she bargained for. Will the affair end in tragedy, or leave her wiser, shaken out of her pose of treating life as absurd, living as she does in the 1950s existentialist Paris of Sartre and his friends? With her spare, skilfully honed prose, Sagan captures a sense of place and the spirit of the times, also managing to evoke empathy with Dominique, despite her rather unappealing passivity at times and perpetual self-absorption. She sustains an underlying sense of nihilism buoyed up with moments of wry humour and false gaiety, ending on an upbeat philosophical note, which may prove short-lived.

Already a bestselling author at the age of eighteen with “Bonjour Tristesse”, Sagan is impressive in her precocious ability not only to construct a sharply observed, tight novella, but also to portray the psychology of a young woman without a clear sense of direction, who finds herself wanting what she cannot have, yet dissatisfied by what is available. The fact Sagan was so close in age to her subject gives the novel authenticity, although she was adamant at the time that her books were not autobiographical, rather captured moments of life.

Reading more about her life I learned how Sagan became addicted to alcohol and drugs, had a string of unhappy relationships, apart from with the fashion designer Peggy Roche, had to give up recorded interviews in later life after turning up once too often haggard, emaciated and in a confused state and died with heavy debts at the age of only 69. Perhaps she had more in common with her characters than she cared to admit, as regards an aching void beneath the brittle hedonism.

This novel is best read in French to appreciate the style, which adds depth to an otherwise slight tale.

“Burning” – Korean film based on story by Murakami

Burning [Blu-ray] [2019]

Based on a short story by Murakami and set in South Korea under the skilful direction of Lee Chang-dong, this slow-paced psychological drama, atmospheric and at times surreal, builds up to an unpredictable dramatic climax. Even without this, it repays watching for its insights into life in South Korea, with the bizarre contrast between the high rise development and brash consumerism of a western-style city and the enduring, unmaterialistic, traditional life in the countryside, given a bizarre twist by proximity to the border with North Korea, its watchtowers blaring out propaganda are within earshot.

Jong-su is a young graduate with a dead-end job, whose expressionless, somewhat pudgy features belie his internal drive to be a writer, like his western idols including William Faulkner. On an errand in the city, he is accosted by an acquaintance from his schooldays on the family smallholding, the flirtatious Hae-mi who seems possibly a little unbalanced. They begin a sexual relationship, but when Hae-mi returns from a brief holiday with a suave, rich young man called Ben in tow, Jong-su does not react much, yet perhaps still waters run deeper than one imagines.

Meanwhile, his father’s imprisonment for a violent incident triggered by ongoing anger management problems, again an indication that Jong-su himself may not be as calm as he seems, obliges him to return to the village to look after his father’s property. On an unexpected visit, Ben talks of his obsession with setting fire to greenhouses, of which there are quite a few in the area. Then Hae-mi disappears and the once passive Jong-su becomes intent on finding her, together with keeping an eye on the local greenhouses.

An intriguing and memorable film about obsession and jealousy.

In a time of monsters – Travels through a Middle East in Revolt by Emma Sky

Encouraged to read this by Emma Sky’s sharp analysis in BBC radio interviews of the unintended consequences of the Iraq War, I realised too late that to find out more about her role as political advisor to the American commander General Ray Odierno in its aftermath, enabling her to give damning evidence at the Chilcot Enquiry, I should have started with her book “The Unravelling”.

“In a Time of Monsters” proves as is often the case with travel books to be very anecdotal and episodic, often revealing some telling insights through a chance encounter, but also frustrating, even confusing at times, in what it omits or glosses over. The background history of the Shias versus Sunni is a little too fragmented, while the explanation of the Caliphates from the death of Mohammed up to the recent attempts of Daesh to create a single Islamic state probably comes too late in the book, some two-thirds of the way through.

“Bored, bitter and twisted”, with an acute sense of anticlimax and loss of purpose after her return to London in 2010, perhaps even a little traumatised by her experience in Iraq as she suggests most westerners are, she resolves to make sense of events by visiting countries affected by the Arab Spring: Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kurdistan and so on.

Making use of what seems like an inexhaustible network of obliging high level political contacts prepared to engage in boozy debates, Emma Sky has no difficulty in striking up conversations with strangers prepared to chat at length . Perhaps her childhood as the matron’s daughter at a boys’ boarding school gave her the confidence to act with such ease in “a man’s world” and also to embark on risky, physically tough journeys, solo or with a male guide for the reward of seeing beautiful, remote areas, like the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Skimming along the river on a jet ski, white-water rafting, swimming into caves to scale waterfalls: sometimes, the socialising and exciting activities, seem too much of a digression from the lives of ordinary Arabs.

It is no surprise that Emma Sky criticises the US for allowing Daesh (or ISIS) to gain a foothold in Iraq in the anger over government corruption and discrimination against Sunnis following the fall of Saddam Hussein. She also condemns the failure to take early action against Assad in Syria to force him to negotiate. It is perhaps more of a surprise that she is so harsh on Obama, described as “leading from behind” and being too passive. However, she does not really provide convincing evidence that continued use of direct force by the West would have yielded the desired results without unacceptable levels of bloodshed, not to mention resentment over apparent attempts to dominate . She is also very critical of Iran as a somewhat malign and destabilising force, reaching tentacles even to the borders of Israel, but was perhaps unable to make the visit to the country which would assist a clear and more objective analysis.

There is a logical progression, in that, being in date order, the visits reflect the passage of events, so that by 2014 Emma Sky is at the refugee camp of Zaatari, close to the border in Jordan, which has become the fourth largest city in the country owing to the flood of refugees from Syria. By 2016 she is in Greece and Eastern Europe tracing the destabilising pressure of Arab refugees pushed out by the devastation in parts of the Middle East. She even visits London to suggest, perhaps too simplistically, that the Brexit vote itself was largely the result of concerns over migration triggered partly by the instability of the Middle East.

The Epilogue finds her on the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a time of acceptance of her past naïve over-optimism, but clinging to the belief that “this is not a time for cynicism or despair” in the hope that her students will manage to leave the world a better place than they found it.