Bookish pilgrimages #2: Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

The Indiana Jones in me had always had a vague ambition to see the Mayan ruins of Mexico. But my desire to see those places suddenly became more fervent when I read The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver in June last year.

I was drawn to this book not only because it was partly set in impossibly exotic Mexico, but because of its subject matter. The blurb promised the story of a young man, Harrison Shepherd, born to an American father and a Mexican mother. He observes and records everything about his itinerant life in Mexico with his social-climbing mother. He later goes on to work as a cook for the famous artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and their houseguest, the exiled Trotsky, before settling in the States and becoming a writer of bestselling novels about Aztec empire.

The Lacuna cover art

The Lacuna – first edition.

The blurb also referred to ‘the breach…between truth and public presumption.’ As Shepherd’s faithful stenographer Violet Brown remarks towards the end of the book, ‘The most important part of a story is the piece of it you don’t know.’ Shepherd’s past – his associations with Mexican and Bolshevik revolutionaries and his ambivalent sexuality – comes back to haunt him as the book enters its third act. World War Two is over; McCarthyism is on the rise. Shepherd’s life is raked over by a bullish news media, backed by a political establishment made rabid by anti-Communist fervour. His every word is held suspect. Interestingly, Kingsolver chose to use extracts from contemporary news clippings in the book and includes forgotten but shocking events from US history, like the treatment of the Bonus Marchers.

I found these parts of the book – and the myriad clever ways in which Kingsolver explores her title (meaning, variously, an absence, a gap, a missing manuscript or a tunnel through time or substance) – captivating. We see how slippages of understanding can widen into a chasm, destroying someone. This struck a chord with me, as it was something which constantly preyed on my mind when I was a TV researcher working with other freelancers on current affairs projects – and it continues to play on my mind, now that I’m studying reporting. Are you sure you have the whole picture? Are you sure it’s not more complicated than that? I wanted to ask these questions daily. But in TV there never seemed to be enough time: at the end of the day there had to be a story, and no one is interested in what’s complicated and taxing, are they? The counsel in Shepherd’s trial by the House of Un-American Activities patronisingly announces at the beginning of the hearing that ‘this will not take all day, gentlemen, we should be out of here in time for lunch’ and forces Shepherd to give ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers to questions that ‘could take some explanation’. Not that different to Jeremy Paxman’s style of interviewing, then. Of course, we, the readers, know the real story – we have been privy to Shepherd’s diaries and his relationships, and we appreciate how fragile and nuanced it is.

So if this is the part of the book that really interested me, why the desperate urge to see its scenery – to see Mexico? Well, for one, another element of what makes this book BRILLIANT is Kingsolver’s writing on Mexico, which is vivid, colourful and evocative. As Kingsolver herself says:

I only set scenes in places I’ve been myself. When I create a world for the reader, I want to do it right, using all my senses.

And her descriptions of Harrison’s experiences in Mexico are very sensually fused. Fellow book blogger Fingers & Prose has identified a passage that also thrilled me – I love how Kingsolver hints at the beauty and complexity of this country in a series of little impressionistic vignettes.

Then there are the lacunas, the sinkholes or cenotes that are found in parts of Mexico: a young Harrison explores one in Isla Pixol and is fascinated by them:

Not a cave exactly but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things… It goes into the belly of the world… Some of the holes are so deep they go to the center of the earth and you’ll see the devil at the bottom. But some only go through the island to the other side.

I too was captivated by cenotes, from both a geological and a poetical perspective. Swimming in one (we visited Cenote Samulà near Valladolid) was an amazing experience. And how clever of Kingsolver to find another way to explore the meaning of her title. The image of the cenote lingers in our mind throughout the text and raises its head again at a crucial moment.

Cenote Samula

Cenote Samula.  Massive banyan tree roots stretch down through the cave to the water.

I had always wanted to visit Chichén Itzá, the ruins that were once the seat of the Mayan empire.

El Castillo

Me in obligatory tourist pose by El Castillo – once the ceremonial centre of Chichen Itza.

But reading The Lacuna opened up new perspectives on the place and made me think about what I was seeing more than any travel guide could. In the book, Harrison visits the ruins during the course of a research trip to the Yucatán. He’s seeking inspiration for his next novel, which is to be about the Maya, and returns to the ruins once more before departing for the States again. His thoughts on Chichén Itzá gave me much to chew over.

Today a story came up in relief from every surface, urgent and visible. Every stone was carved with some image: the snearing jaguar, the feathered serpent, a long frieze of swimming goldfish… In their time, all these buildings were brightly painted. What a shock to realise that, and how foolish to have been tricked earlier by the serenity of white limestone. Like looking at a skeleton and saying, “How quiet this man was, and how thin.” Imagine the place crawling with kings and slaves, I said. And mothers, wondering if their children had fallen down the well. We stayed a good while, reconstructing the scene.

Harrison writes historical romances, so he is reflecting on how history and fictional versions of history intersect. He realises his first impressions of the place were imperfect, faulty, reductive. He wants to get closer to the truth of what Chichén Itzá had really been like. And this in turn weaves into Kingsolver’s exploration of the importance of what gets lost, forgotten or purposefully deleted from official records.

El Castillo close-up

El Castillo, the pyramid that Harrison and Violet Brown gamely climb (unfortunately tourists are no longer allowed to).

Of course, I’m not saying it’s imperative to go to Mexico to enjoy Kingsolver’s book! But some of the most thought-provoking travel can start in unexpected places. For me, those places are often books. And going to Mexico made me pick up The Lacuna again, and find new things in it.

An Advent reading list

I never used to be the sort of reader who’d have more than one book on the go at any one time, but that seems to be the way of things nowadays. Here’s what’s on the pile at the moment:

My copy of Bel Ami.

My copy of Bel Ami. Discount sticker no reflection on content.

Bel Ami, Guy de Maupassant (1885). Thought it would be quite fun to read about a corrupt, sordid journo who rises through the ranks of the Paris hoi-polloi despite any manifest talent. Food for thought! I was also spurred on to read it after my vow to tackle more ‘classics’, especially ones in French…

The Cleaner of Chartres

The Cleaner of Chartres and its very pretty cover

The Cleaner of Chartres, Salley Vickers (2012). Another book set in France. I love everything Vickers has done, and I’m racing through this. There’s a kind of fabular feel to Vickers’ storytelling here: there’s moralising but she’s using a lighter touch than in previous books, which creates the sense that something almost mystic is at work. One of the things I love about her novels and short stories is that they are not afraid to deal in moral seriousness, nor weave in religious imagery and allegory.

Austerlitz by W.G.Sebald

Austerlitz by W.G.Sebald

Austerlitz, W.G.Sebald (2001; I’ve got the 2011 Penguin edition). A gift from a good friend (Merci, Maia!). Good to read some fiction in translation – need to read more of it. I haven’t made much headway with this yet, but so far I’ve been struck by Sebald’s narratology – it’s shifting, layered, and refuses any kind of straightforward account of the eponymous character and his life, a man who was sent to England on a Kinderstransport in 1939. Then there are the photographs interspersed throughout the text. I’ve never seen that before in something that’s ostensibly fiction. But is it fiction? Is it a historical account? Are the photographs ‘real’?

Mmm…nothing particularly festive in there, is there? I also fancy India Knight’s Comfort and Joy, too and Kate Mosse’s new spooky collection of short stories, The Mistletoe Bride, set in France and England.

When I was about ten I read an absolutely brilliant children’s book of short, Christmas-themed stories. I’ve been hunting for it ever since. It enchanted me then, and I’m sure it would now. If I manage to track it down, I’ll share it on here!

Happy festive reading.

All hail Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively

I was a latecomer to Penelope Lively’s fiction for adults. Previously I only knew her name from her children’s books: The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me, to name one, or The House in Norham Gardens (since living in Oxford, I’ve had fun walking around the actual street named Norham Gardens, musing over whether Lively had any particular house in mind.)

Consequences, read on a long, cramped train journey on a dark February night, was my first forary into Lively’s adult novels. Since then I’ve been voraciously working my way through her entire back catalogue. It’s great when an author’s writing inspires that kind of thirst, where one book makes you want to read everything else they’ve ever written. I’ve had it with Ian McEwan and Salley Vickers too, but I’ll praise them elsewhere; this is Lively’s party.

She deserves a party: she is undervalued. Why is the publication of a new Lively book (and she is a prolific writer) not trumpeted in the way that books by other major British novelists are? Mustn’t whine (Penelope would hate that) but there seems to be an impression, identified by Anthony Thwaite in his introduction to her Booker prize-winning Moon Tiger, that Lively’s books are essentially cosily middle-class, unchallenging reads. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s not Lively.

The first edition of Moon Tiger

The first edition of Moon Tiger

It’s true that her novels are peopled with middle-class characters pursuing white-collar or arty, imaginative careers. Academics (often historians or archaeologists), garden designers, architects, interior designers, writers, solicitors, journalists and art dealers all feature. But Lively likes skewering these types, too: Gina in Family Album is aware that her aunt Corinna ignores her mother Alison, a housewife, and is impressed only ‘by achievements in her own rarefied sphere. I don’t write studies of 19th Century poetry, so I am beyond her remit.’ Kath in The Photograph remains an enigma, a kind of aporetic void at the heart of the text, but this is because we only ever view her through the eyes of others who are constantly trying to grasp what she ‘does’ with her life. They don’t understand what she does for a job, if she does anything at all. Therefore they don’t understand (or try to understand) her.

What I really enjoy in Lively’s novels is the idea that we are, somehow, composites of selves, that ‘if a place is haunted, it is perhaps with the ghost of ourselves, both past and future.’ Her ‘anti-memoir’, Making It Up, explores this brilliantly: the splintering chains of consequences that make up a life and how different the ‘story’ could have been. It reads like a series of short stories in which Lively riffs on aspects of her own life and imagines how things could have turned out differently.

Pile of Lively's books

My pretty Penguin editions of Lively’s books

Then there’s the way she writes. Lively can tell, tell, tell and not show, for pages on end, with little dialogue. It’s how she tells, what she notices, the precise details she chooses to home in on – and always with her trademark taut style. She takes an almost phenomenological view of cities and landscapes – never more so than in City of the Mind, which was proving almost too densely psychological and disorientating for me at first, but which turned out to be a satisfyingly slow burn.

Top recommendations? Heat Wave – pathetic fallacy par excellence, where Lively ratchets up the tension between a mother, daughter and the daughter’s husband during a long, hot summer (remember those? Oh wait, we just had one!). How It All Began for some of her best writing on age, being young, identity, reading, the importance of stories, love, marriage and human interaction. Making It Up – for narrative innovation. And Consequences – an immensely moving, but never saccharine, saga spanning three generations of women from the eve of World War Two to the present day.

She’s got a new book out at the moment, Ammonites and Leaping Fish – read more here: http://www.penelopelively.net

And here’s her recent poignant, meditative piece for The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/05/penelope-lively-old-age

Do read thee some Lively – you won’t regret it.

Forgetting about the classics

Calling all ex-English students! Does anyone else have to make a conscious effort to remember to read ‘the classics’ since they finished their degree? I left university craving modern fiction and that’s mostly what I’ve been reading ever since.

Until this year, I could count on one hand the ‘classics’ I’d read since leaving uni. Here they are: The Count of Monte Cristo (en français – long, but loved it) and Wuthering Heights, which I somehow never read as part of my Victorian Lit module but thought was fabulous (and what a wonderfully weird anomaly it is, when you look at everything else being written at the time). And…I can’t think of many others. Certainly few of the weighty nineteenth-century French tomes I bought from the bouquinistes and charming second-hand French bookshops.

Bouquinistes by the Seine

Parisian bouquinistes. Who sold me books I still haven’t read.

But the shame eventually got to me. One too many cries of ‘What do you mean, you haven’t read [insert name of time-honoured classic]…and you studied English…??’ and I had a major case of reading guilt. I’m not the only one – the fab Savidge Reads recently embarked on Classically Challenged, a programme of reading that would let him get around to exploring some of those big, canonical authors that are meant to be, you know, the greatest writers of all time. His posts on this epic literary diet make for good reading, and are encouraging for anyone who’s a bit nervous about going back to the classics. (Tip: you don’t have to think they’re all marvellous! I learnt this from The Last of the Mohicans. OH GOD I REALLY HATED THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS.)

So I’ve been trying to get my backside into gear and read some of those fat old books that were earnestly bought before university but have languished on my shelves ever since. Of course, they’re not all fat and chunky – but somehow the doorstops are the ones that have called out to me most, challenging me to conquer them.

Anna Karenina was one of the best investments I made. ‘Investment’ is the word. To tackle these kind of books again I found I almost had to go on a training regime: to adjust my palate, build up my stamina, train myself to read for longer. To be a more patient, deliberate sort of reader; to force myself to keep going and nibble away. I realised, with dismay, that taking a jolting bus journey to work every day had surreptitiously altered my reading habits: I wanted sharp, clean writing and short, snappy books I could devour in a couple of journeys. Either that, or something so wonderfully escapist and gripping that I positively welcomed the chance to read it by the light of my iphone on those dark winter evenings when the bus had, yet again, failed to turn up. I’m thinking: Game of Thrones, any Carlos Ruiz Zafòn (I urge you to read The Shadow of the Wind trilogy) and The Time Traveler’s Wife (yes, I know, only just got round to reading that too)…

Me reading Anna Karenina

Here I am reading Anna Karenina in the Caribbean. I know – dedicated, right? It beat reading it on the bus.

Mind you, I think we give ourselves a guilt complex too readily. We forget that many massive, Victorian-era novels were serial publications, published in installments (I’m thinking of Dickens, who I haven’t touched for years).

But Anna was worth the slog. Even the agricultural reform bits with Levin weren’t too bad. I’d heard about how achingly slow and difficult these parts of the book were, so was perhaps prepared for a real endurance test – but it was OK! (It helps that Levin is awesome.)

What next? I feel it should be a French doorstop, but I may need some sort of carrot, like another bookish trip to look forward to. Mmm. Which massive nineteenth-century French novel has the most exotic setting??

‘Like Dickens, but more political’ – reading Les Mis (or not)

I still haven’t finished Hugo’s Les Misérables – and I started it when I was about 13, in the original French (which was, come to think of it, a bit too ambitious for my pre-GSCE lexicon). I do intend to finish it, really I do – and I should, being such a fan of the musical (and now Tom Hooper’s film). You can read my thoughts on both in this piece I wrote for York-based zine One&Other: http://archive.oneandother.com/articles/les-mis-and-me/

My copy of Les Mis

My neat, unthumbed copy of Les Mis

Bookish pilgrimages #1: Casa Guidi, Florence

I’m a sucker for literary tourism. It’s something to do with getting a sense of place and for me this often makes for a richer reading experience. I know that as a former lit theory student I should repudiate any exploration of an author’s background or biography (yes Barthes, I know, the author is dead…il n’y a pas de hors-texte). But I have always loved seeing where books have been set and the places writers lived or visited, so I’m going to share some of my favourite bookish trips on this blog. Without further ado…

Portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Great EBB

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…’ So begins Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous sonnet and probably the poem for which she is best known. But my admiration for EBB only really began when I read Aurora Leigh, the extraordinary novel-poem about a young Victorian woman’s self-education and her journey to becoming a poet. I have, to quote Spamalot, lovingly ripped off Aurora’s opening lines to create the tag line for this blog:

OF writing many books there is no end;

And I who have written much in prose and verse

For others’ uses, will write now for mine, –

Will write my story for my better self…

Feminists, ahoy: simply by choosing to write in epic form, Barrett Browning was planting her flag in very male territory, something that was seen as the preserve of Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Tennyson. Women, y’see, didn’t write epic poetry, they wrote lyrics. Or were meant to. Anyway, it’s a many-sided, curious beast, is Aurora Leigh, and it doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of university syllabi. I’ll endeavour to bang on about how astonishing and brilliant it is in a future post.

Florenceview

Lovely Florence

While on a mini-break in Florence, it seemed only right to pay my respects to Barrett Browning by visiting Casa Guidi. This is the house she shared with husband and fellow poet Robert Browning after the pair married in secret and escaped to Italy. Tucked away in the Oltrarno area of Florence, nowadays the property is owned by Eton College and can be rented as a holiday home.

Inside Casa Guidi

Inside the apartment

Warning: it’s only open to the public at certain times of the year and on certain days.

Me at EBB's desk

Me at EBB’s desk

Here I am with EBB’s writing desk. I don’t think you were actually meant to touch the desk. Technically I didn’t physically touch it, honest – just did a silly pose and hoped that her wisdom would filter through to me, as if by osmosis…