Tag Archives: Books

The Little Pond in the Woods

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Why we write

The vast majority of the human race drifts without record from conception to extinction. Their lives go unrecorded, and it is only theology which might make us suppose that these individual lives have any previous or future existence, or indeed, during their palpable existence on earth, that they have any identifiable significance. For most, it is a tale full of sound and fury signifying nothing; but, most significant of all, it is a tale which is not told. It is only by telling the tale that we create the illusion that there is a tale to tell. The rise of the rise of the novel in literature, which came with a great resurrection in the art of biography, a passion for journals, letter writing, personal confessions and memoirs, all of which happened shortly before or during the lifetime of Rousseau, gave to articulate beings the means of creating a shape, of holding onto words and moments which would otherwise be forgotten, of creating a barricade against death.

A. N. Wilson, Tolstoy, W. H. Norton and Co, 1988, pp. 88 – 89.

Discuss.

The slow reveal

Cross posted

If Tracey Crisp’s novel, Black Dust Dancing, is characterised by the pauses and little actions of everyday life, then Kate De Goldi’s novel, The 10pm Question, is all about the slow reveal. So much so, that to tell you about some of the key points of the novel is to spoil the process of revelation. So I shall be careful about what I say here: I will reveal some, but only the necessary, and leave some for you to read for yourself. Because you ought to read this novel.

The 10pm Question is seen through the eyes of Frankie, a 12 year old boy. His life seems normal, just the everyday activities of a boy and his family, even if overlaid by his anxiety. He has responsibilities, and he worries. Constantly. Mostly, he worries about his mother.

This is the point at which you should stop reading if you plan to read this book for yourself. At this point, I’m going to give a reveal. It doesn’t ruin the plot, but I can’t write about this book without revealing why Frankie worries about his mother.

Frankie’s Mum has a mental illness. It constrains her life, and affects every member of the family, in different ways. Not in frightening ways. But in ways that push Frankie and his sister and his brother, and Uncle George.

This is where Kate De Goldi writes about mental illness so well. As I read the novel, it took me some time to realise that Frankie’s mum, Francie, has a mental illness. Bit by bit I realised that something was not quite usual with Frankie’s world. I realised that his mum was not a standard mum, and then I realised that she had a mental illness, and only after quite some time did I work out the exact nature of her illness. It was like real life, when we first assume that someone we have just met is a standard issue person, and then we realise that something is a bit unusual, and then that the person may have a mental health problem, and then, possibly, work out a little about the nature of a problem. In real life, a person’s mental illness is often a slow reveal, to themselves, and to the people around them. Kate De Goldi has mirrored this slow reveal in the way she has written this novel.

De Goldi doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of mental illness, for the person who has it, and for the people around her or him. When Frankie finally flies to his great aunts (three women of large size and large personality), the eldest aunt doesn’t try to smooth over the problems, to pretend that they don’t exist.

“Oh Frankie,” she sighed. “Isn’t it hard?”

That’s one of the things I like about this book. It doesn’t try to pretend that illness is easy, that everyone can just take the pills and be happy. Kate de Goldi’s characters cope, but there are costs for each of them too. Above all, there are costs for Francie. She has found a way of living, a way of managing, a way of being… content, even if not happy per se. But there are costs. Fancie is no super-crip. She’s just an ordinary woman, who copes as best she can with the way her life has turned out.

I also like Frankie’s perspective. He seems to me to be a thorough-going twelve year old, full of plans and rituals and speculations. It was fun to see the world through a twelve-year-old’s eyes, to see things that he didn’t, and realise that he saw things that I simply could not perceive.

You should read this book. It’s entertaining, but it’s also thought-provoking. And it is instructive. Not in the sense of being didactic, or moralistic, at all. But in the sense of revealing aspects of the way that human beings can be, with sympathy, and without judgement.

Ms Twelve read this book too, and loved it. It’s well within the reach of a perceptive twelve year old, ‘though I suspect that she will find more in it if she reads it again when she is older.

Anarchy, The Dispossessed, and Bentham’s Panopticon

I enjoy reading science fiction, especially by more recent writers, who have gotten over entrenched misogyny (why is it that Arthur C. Clarke, so visionary in so much else, insists on referring to women as ‘girls’, and they only appear as secretaries?).

The best science fiction makes us understand ourselves, and what our own world could be like. The sci-fi writer I like most of all is Ursula Le Guin, and of her novels, The Dispossessed is my favourite. It is a very powerful, and meditative book. I recommend it, especially if you haven’t read any of Le Guin’s other books.

The story is a fascinating account of an anarchic society. By ‘anarchic’, Le Guin means a society with no centralised control, and no overt form of government. To be sure, the society has co-ordinating mechanisms, but that’s it. This is anarchism as a political theory, not the folk account of anarchism being the province of Molotov-cocktail throwing, violent, destructive thugs.

Even in this anarchic society, people conform. Work assignments are controlled by PDC. People submit their work requirements and their skills and preferences to PDC, and PDC sends back a posting. In theory, postings can be refused, but in practice, no one ever does.

… we’re ashamed to say we have refused a posting. [The] social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience, instead of striking a balance with it. We don’t co-operate – we obey. We fear being outcast, being called lazy, dysfunctional, egoizing. We fear our neighbour’s opinion more than we respect our own freedom of choice. … We force a man outside the sphere of approval, and then condemn him for it. We’ve made laws, laws of conventional behaviour, built walls all around ourselves, and we can’t see them, because they’re part of our thinking.

This is the most overt political statement in the book. For the most part, the interplay of character and action is the centre of the book. Le Guin very rarely breaks into this didactic mode, and even then, the ideas are consistent with plot and character.

The man who voices these ideas, Shevek, the hero of the novel, is a physicist, and a free thinker. Eventually he dares to think the unthinkable, and leaves his planet, to visit the mother planet that his anarchic society came from. This simple act shakes his supposedly free thinking society to its foundations.

I have been intrigued for a long time by this thought that we constrain ourselves by our own social mores. Depending on the group of people we are in, we buy into certain modes of behaviour, certain ways of expressing ourselves, and we dismiss anyone who doesn’t conform. In doing so, we regulate ourselves, and restrict our own freedom to think.

Michel Foucault saw this, in a brilliant analysis of Bentham’s Panopticon.

Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832), the father of utilitarianism, was deeply interested in penal reform, and to this end, he designed the panopticon. The panopticon was a circular prison, with cells in the outside wall, all facing inward. In the middle of all the cells was a tower, in which the guards sat. The guards, sitting in their tower, could see into all the cells. The cells were back lit, so that the prisoners could be seen, but they themselves could not tell whether or not the guards were looking at them. So fearful always of being seen, by the all-seeing warder in the middle, the prisoners would regulate their own behaviour, and thus control would be maintained.

Michel Foucault analysed the effect of the panopticon.

They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualised and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognise immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions – to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide – it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor captures better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap.

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan, 1975

Fascinating, and prescient, given the proliferation of video surveillance, real time security cameras, and tracking of website visits – we know where you have been!

But I find it even more interesting to think about the extent to which we put ourselves into cells in the panopticon, and like the people in Le Guin’s anarchic society, regulate our own behaviour so that we will fit in with the people around us.

I suspect that anarchy of the kind expressed in throwing petrol bombs is rather easy. It’s a straight forward revolt against authority. But how much harder might it be to think against the masses, to go your own way, and to really, seriously, challenge those in power, in whichever community you might belong to.

And here’s the real kicker – the reward for having read this far.

Jeremy Bentham did not design the panopticon himself, as a penal institution. He ‘borrowed’ the idea from his brother, Samuel.

A few months ago, I read what may be the definitive biography of Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s magnificent first minister (Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin, Simon Sebag Montefiore, 2000). I was intrigued to find that Jeremy Bentham had visited Russia, and that Samuel Bentham had been a key assistant to Potemkin. Samuel was responsible for supervising a heterogenous workforce of Russians, Jews, and Geordies. His solution to supervising this rabble was “a factory constructed so that the manager could see all his workers from one central observation point.” This was the origin of the panopticon.

Having a good day at work, gentle reader? Can your manager see what you are doing? Will your colleagues think you are shirking? Do you think you should get back to work now?

Villette

    Villette, Jane Eyre and The French Lieutenant’s Woman

I have only a smattering of English lit in my education, not enough to comment knowledgably about what’s going on in these books. So this is my uneducated, unrehearsed, and unpolished response to Villette, which I find easiest to think about in relation to the other two books. I wanted to write about Villette in particular, because it justifies so much more than a one line review.

There are some marked similarities between Jane Eyre and Villette, other than that they were both written by Charlotte Bronte. In both cases, the heroine is an educated woman, who must earn her own living. She is transplanted into a strange place (Thornfield in Jane Eyre, the city Villette in the novel of that name), where she must find her way. Each woman goes through a terrible ordeal, and yet following that ordeal, she finds someone who could be a husband for her. But in Jane Eyre the heroine rejects her suitor, St John Rivers, ‘though she is happy to be as a sister to him, because she knows that he would stifle her, whereas in Villette, the man the heroine loves never seems to be aware of her love for him. He is kind, friendly, brother-like, but that is all.

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