Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Sunday Read: Cold Earth by Sarah Moss

Every so often, you find yourself picking up a book and wanting to read it not because you've heard the title before, not because you're drawn to the setting or the location, the genre or the style of writing, but just because the concept is so intriguing that you feel you just have to know more.

Cold Earth is one such book; a book that promises to be an apocalyptic tale about a virus sweeping over the earth while a team of people in a remote location cope with isolation and survival in the face of it all. I couldn't wait to start it.
A group of six archaeologists all assemble in the West Coast of Greenland to research lost Viking settlements; their team is led by Yianni, a professional archaeologist, who receives a large amount of funding for a dig to find out how medieval settlers, once present on Greenland, may have disappeared. He brings with him four archaeologists - two men and two women - and a further woman, Nina, his unrequited love interest.

And it is Nina who begins the narrative. A petulant and immature character whose only interest is Victorian literature (and certainly not the dig), Nina epitomises high-maintanence, and her introspective self-absorbed whines really do get rather old rather quickly. Of course, it doesn't help that she is the sole character to narrate the story until about a third of the way into the book; and by this point, with little to no mention of the deadly virus which one is assured is the focus of this 'apocalyptic' book, it's easy to begin to wonder whether it's worth the read after all; whether there's somehow been some awful mix-up between the published blurb and the actual content.

But then at last, in a break from focussing on Nina's increasing insanity and hallucinations as she struggles to cope with Greenland, Ruth takes over, and things improve for the next third of the novel - well, at least somewhat. An upbeat American, Ruth is much more likeable as a character; but, unfortunately, her 100-page narrative is primarily used by Moss to describe Nina's hallucinations from the view of another character - hallucinations which are neither fully addressed nor explained in the remaining third of the book. Indeed, devoting more than half of the narrative to Nina's troubles just seems a little pointless; set the scene before introducing the idea of the virus and of isolation, yes, but is there really a need to spend two-thirds of the book scene-setting and dwelling on Nina's growing insanity, leaving just under 100 pages for the remaining four characters to rather suddenly describe the effects of the virus?

It has to be said, though, that when the virus storyline really kicks in, it's rather good; and, if you can resist the urge fifty pages before the end to skip to the last paragraph, you ought to be commended on your strength of character. Their internet connection breaks down, they hear of the virus, food runs low, and then the team are left, it seems, to die - and thus emerges an interesting few pages which say a lot about survival, about characters, and, if you're prepared to look deep enough, about something much deeper. It is, of course, spoiled slightly by the fact that Nina is back to narrate the final chapter, and I'm afraid that not even an intriguing twist could save me from the deep frustration that she should be left to finish the book, as she began it, when one of the other more interesting characters could, I'm sure, have offered more worthwhile insights.

I wanted to like this book. I really did, and perhaps if my only qualm had been the construction and preoccupation with Nina's character, I may have been able to conclude that the book was a very worthwhile read nonetheless. But Nina's character wasn't my only issue. The language was, perhaps purposely so, sparse, emotionless and hollow in places; some characters were overdeveloped while more interesting characters were hardly explored at all; the twist at the end really made little sense and was just a further source of frustration; and, for a novel which takes two-thirds of the narrative to set the scene, the location of Greenland and the details of the camp, surroundings and even the dig remained surprisingly unexplored.

It has to be said, Cold Earth was excellent in places - but I'm beginning to think my expectations were too high. It was billed as an apocalyptic, gripping novel which offers some real food for thought on issues of survival and the traces we leave behind, and I think I was hoping for a 28 Days Later-come-Lord of the Flies affair. Silly me, perhaps; it is most certainly not that. What it is, however, is an interesting piece of work which is perhaps purposely slow and frustrating up until the final fifty tense pages, which really do have something quite profound to say about themes of survival, love - and, in a deeper sense - society, and the nature of humanity beyond that.

And it is an incredibly short novel, Cold Earth - at a little under 300 pages, you can't help but think that if Moss had taken the time to extend the novel; to make the dull scene-setting with the rather dull case study of Nina's insanity a half or a third of the book rather than two-thirds, it may have made the novel into the gripping apocalyptic narrative it is billed to be.

A unique and interesting read, so much so that it's almost worth persevering through the first 200 pages for the intrigue of the final 100; almost, I'm afraid, but not quite.


Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Sunday Read: The Great Lover

I'll be honest; the cover of this book is what initially drew me to it. Such a beautiful image, such a sense of freedom.

I didn't know much about Rupert Brooke before reading the book, and so this novel seemed like a perfect opportunity to explore this literary figure. A war poet, Brooke was often hailed as "the most handsome man in England", and was associated with charisma, gossip, wit and an ambiguous sexuality; he was romantically linked with both men and women, and several of them, before his death while on active service in 1915.

The novel focuses mainly on Brooke's period living in Grant-chester, where Brooke lodged for three years on and off, before embarking on a journey to Tahiti, where he is said to have fathered a child. It is this wonderful rumour which sparks a great starting point for the book; a letter is written from Brooke's apparent Tahitian child, seeking information about his years in Grant-chester. And so enter the wonderfully yet unrealistically named Nell Golightly; a fictional creation of Dawson's, she is a maid in the vicarage where Brooke takes his lodgings.

Brooke's time in Grant-chester is, by all accounts, eventful: losing his virginity to an old male school friend, pursuing several well-to-do ladies, rather a lot of naked swimming, and, one would assume, writing poetry - although this is an avenue rarely explored within the book.
And Nell Golightly, what of her? She is a bee-keeper's daughter; an orphan, with many younger siblings to look after, she is working at the vicarage as a maid. Strong, sensible - and yet, inevitably, she falls in love with Rupert Brooke, and he with her (bet you didn't see that coming); they manage a lot of naked swimming together, and even a quick kiss, amidst his string of other romantic encounters with wealthy young women.
I do appreciate that the author required a voice from which the reader could get to know the young Rupert Brooke, and a voice which, indeed, could write back to his supposed illegitimate child. Nell Golightly, though, who falls so quickly under his spell, loses her headstrong ability rather swiftly; I suppose she is impressionistic, and so we can forgive her that... but from her set-up in the novel, I would've liked to see her with a little more backbone, please.

But maybe I'm just being defensive of poor little Nell because I don't want to see her fall in love with Rupert Brooke.
Here's the thing: I'm not even sure I like Brooke. Arrogant, ignorant, so totally self-centred, he's overly idealistic and by half-way through the novel I wondered if he would ever take his head out the clouds and look around at real life (apparently not). He is surrounded by the Edwardian class system, beautifully and accurately portrayed by the author, and, indeed, if he stopped to look around he would find some very real and very depressing sights. Sadly, all he manages to pay attention to in this novel are his string of meaningless relationships, which the reader must suffer through, and it is a little disheartening to witness the continual hurting of poor Nell, so desperately in love with him, although at times one does wonder why.

There are some beautiful moments in this book; the descriptions of some scenes are breathtaking, soft and romantic, and some tender scenes between Nell and Brooke, in which they discuss life's great mysteries and challenges, are truly touching; although a little unlikely, given their master-servant relationship, and his apparent attitude to the women in his life.

So now I know, apparently, a little more about Rupert Brooke. Is it a good novel, worth a read? Undoubtedly, if only for its poetic-like descriptions. But if Dawson's portrayal of Brooke is accurate, then I can't help feeling like I'd have been happier not to know about him. Enigmatic, charismatic, idealistic, yes, those are the stereotypes he carries; but after the novel I feel I can add arrogant, pompous and ignorant to that list - I'm afraid, not exactly redeeming qualities.


Tuesday, 4 January 2011

con la esperanza se vive: a victory for mankind

Written in October, 2010.

How great was the news that all of "Los 33" were rescued successfully, and in good conditions, this week? It was an amazing story, and one which will stay with us and be celebrated for a long time. The truth is, I don't know anyone who hasn't felt somehow personally affected by the Chilean Miners' rescue.

There's been a buzz in the office and at home and when out with friends, everyone crowding round the nearest tv screen as we watch, one by one, the miners being brought to the surface. There's been the normally emotionless faces of one of my fellow commuters suddenly breaking into a huge, genuine grin when talking on the phone to his loved one about the rescues, and a subsequent smile forming on the face of several people around him, just because they were reminded of the operation and its success. And there's been me almost missing my train to work after spending fifteen minutes mesmerised by one of the miner's re-emergence to the surface being shown live on TV, watching the capsule break into the sunlight and the touching reunion of husband and wife; only stopping to realise afterwards that I had to wipe away tears rolling down my cheeks.

So why has this story affected us all so much?
Because it was covered extensively in the media? Almost certainly; after all, the latest report out shows that the BBC spent £100,000 on their live coverage of the events. Because what the miners had to survive is most people's worst nightmare? Most probably; it's hard to imagine much worse than 70 hot, dark, long, starving days down a mine, and spending the majority of that time not knowing whether anyone on the surface was even aware you were still alive.

More than either of these things, though, this story seemed to affect the world so much as it had this great, sudden ability to make people feel, for a moment, somehow united in their hope that these miners would survive, live and regain full health.
It's mankind's nature to be curious when events unfold and to be unable to tear ourselves away; after all, there's no denying that a certain part of the fascination that the rescue operation held was an awful, watching-from-between-my-fingers anticipation how potentially wrong things could go. But it is also mankind's nature to rejoice with others when things go well - and this, in truth, is why there was such a global sense of unity and compassion towards the miners.

And ok, so all this talk of a unison of mankind may seem wildly exaggerated - but it actually seems to hold true; a quick internet search brings up a plethora of inspirational quotes relating to the rescue operation, from different countries, in different languages - but they all say the same thing. "It was a victory day for mankind" says one report; "the rescue... clearly demonstrated the co-operation of the entire world uniting in a common cause" says another, going even further to compare the compassion generated around the globe for the miners as feeling as if the world were "holding hands".
This event certainly deserved global compassion and celebration - in truth, how often is it that the world pulls together over any news story, and especially one of such extreme positivity?

Reactions around the globe show that the rescue has, deservingly, restored many people's faith in the compassion, dedication and bravery of mankind, of the merits and abilities of others to influence the world in such a positive way; for many people across the world, it is as if the news has made them stop and think, for a moment in their busy lives, about what selflessness, compassion, bravery and hope can achieve. And that is a reflection, and a realisation, which should be contemplated more often than it is in modern society.

The truth is, this is a lesson for selfishness; the perfect opportunity to be reminded of something that perhaps we had forgotten - that self-absorption may well be the source of emotional and, indeed, actual destruction of our society.
Reading El PaĆ­s yesterday, and taking in the rescued miners' words in the original language that they were uttered, a common theme permeated all the interviews. Yes, they discussed the mine, and how the terrible conditions were; and yes, they raised and re-iterated their concerns over improving mine safety not only in Chile but across the world. More than that, though, the miners seemed united in their desire to dwell most on one topic: their loved ones. The thought of spending time with their relatives again, they said, was what had caused them to cling onto hope in the mine, and was what they now, after being rescued, wanted to focus the rest of their life on.

And that, precisely, shows the danger of the self-absorption of modern society. We are a society of busy, demanding lives; conflicting schedules; a hectic work life with leisure time squeezed in around it. We are a society of ready-meals, of work hard-play hard; of not enough hours in the day, and of wanting everything, and wanting it now. We always have to be doing something, going somewhere, checking something; too often, it seems that we've lost the ability, the time, or perhaps even the inclination, to simply sit, relax and enjoy the things we most value in life.

And what do we value most in life, really? Money, promotions, a house, extravagance, the lastest technology, luxury holidays - there's no denying that living a high-powered, active life can bring extreme satisfaction. But ask anyone what three things they want most in life, and amid the career and the money and the success you'll almost certainly hear that they want to be surrounded by loved ones; by friends, partners, relatives that can share in the success and the disasters of our individual lives.
All too often does the notion that it would be better to have little but to have people to share it with, than to have everything and to be, ultimately, relatively alone seem increasingly relevant to our society. And we are in serious danger of isolating ourselves from the rest of the world; our ruthlessness and ambition and desire for success can, without caution, lead to extreme self-absorption and single-mindedness, to the extent that we end up sacrificing precious time with others in preference for furthering our other, non-social, achievements - to the eventual effect of melancholy and depression; to the feeling of having it all, but having nothing.
And again, this may seem wildly exaggerated and melodramatic; but why else have several UK women's monthly magazines published articles in the past few months on the rapidly increasing numbers of women who strive to 'have it all', and, despite enjoying success, end up feeling so desperately lonely and upset that they take medication, see psychiatrists and feel, ultimately, completely alone.

And this is not to say that we shouldn't strive for successful careers, for ambitious attitudes and for personal achievement; but what this is to say is that if we don't make enough time to share our rewards and satisfaction with others, then we will always, ultimately, be left feeling like something was missing - be left wanting something a little bit more.

So keep in mind the feel-good global "hand-holding" that swept over us with the Chilean Miners story this week; the feeling that compassion and the will to help others still had a real place in the world; the feeling of being more at one with others in our local and global communities. Our challenge now is not to forget that feeling, but to cling onto it and to try our best to move away from self-absorption and personal insularity, and towards, instead, building a more compassionate, understanding and supportive society, where everyone has the will to help and spend time with others alongside chasing other personal goals.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Sunday Read: The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite - Beatrice Colin

This is an amazing book, and has recently seemed to gain a huge amount of accolade - which, as I discovered, is well-deserved. From the first page, this fanastic novel transported me away from my dull packed train to the seemingly wonderful yet depressing world of Berlin at the turn of the century.

The novel follows the ever-changing life of Lilly Aphrodite (possibly the most wonderful name for a heroine that I've ever come across), complexly juxtaposing desperation and poverty with glamour and fame. Although a work of fiction, the book is nonetheless historically realistic and offers the reader a highly plausible insight into the capital of Germany under the Weimar Republic. It was, by all accounts, a time of extreme hardship, which to the author's credit, Lilly's life reflects - she is raised in an orphanage, raped by wealthy employers, and spends much of the novel surviving on next to no food. While this admittedly could have made for a rather dreary read (indeed, at times it's hard not to feel quite depressed by the girl's desperate situation), the author offers the reader some light relief in its uplifting focus on Lilly's career, as she emerges as a glamorous and successful black and white film actress.

Ultimately, it is with this increasing portrayal of her infamy in society that the novel begins to lose its sense of realism and probably its high level of impact upon the reader, but all in all this story offers a powerful message about growing up in a time and place which seems to be all too often overlooked in literature. Lilly lives in desperately hard circumstances, and her story is predominantly one of extreme suffering, mixed with a passionate yet ultimately failing romance, and rather a lot of glitz and glamour.
Beautifully written, this is really one of those books that you just need to read.