Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Year in Books: June

This month's choice was something of an epic, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, I listened to all 27 or so hours of it on audio book in May and June.  However, at no point was listening a slog, rather like a long, enjoyable journey; Juliet Stevenson's brilliant reading was a vital part of the experience.  The story concerns Anna, a divorced writer of a best selling novel in her 30s living in London with her daughter and covers a period of time from the 1930s to the 1950s.  In its structure it is far from a "normal" novel though, it moves fluidly through time and through different narrative perspectives and is a master class in plot and potentially unreliable narration.  The facts of who is who, or why or how particular things have happened are not spelt out, instead the reader is left to put the pieces of the jigsaw together.  Although this sounds as though it could be infuriating, I found that it actually meant that I thought a lot about the novel as I went along and tried to fit the pieces together, some you are never openly told but are simply expected to put together.  You are quite simply plunged into Anna's world.

The Golden Notebook is very much a novel of the inner life and is mostly told through a first person narrative, except when Anna is looking at the content of the notebooks into which she has attempted to divide up the various strands of her life.  One of these is a third person account of her time in Africa during the second world war and her experiences involved with the Communist party there, for this section of the book Anna gives herself a new name, Ella and also renames most of the other protagonists of the novel.  Hence Lessing is able to leave you unsure how accurate this account of the past is, as Anna tries to create a distance between herself and her past and to examine it in a new way and try out new scenarios - Ella has a son, whereas Anna has a daughter for example.

Relationships and sex play a large part in the novel, as Anna and her friend Molly seek to find a new way to live as single women, a process which seems to result in a lot of unsatisfactory affairs, generally with married men, who seem to see them as available.  In this respect Doris Lessing gives a very different perspective on the life of the unmarried woman in 1950s London to that of another of my favourite novelists, Barbara Pym, whose women are solidly respectable, generally engaged in unrequited love, the church and lonely meals for one in small flats.  Anna's life seems to demonstrate the beginnings of the women's liberation movement of the 1960s, its foundations, while Barbara Pym documents the last of a fast fading world.  Maternity becomes another key theme as Anna brings up her daughter, a very conventional young girl and Molly struggles with her son and what he should do with his life.  Molly's former husband Richard, who had a brief involvement in Communism, but has now settled down to business, represents conventionality and money and Tommy, their son, seems caught in between their two ways of life.  Furthermore one gets the impression from The Golden Notebook that it is not only the women who are struggling to sort out their relationships but the men too, such as Molly's ex-husband Richard, who moves from his second to third wives as the novel progresses.

Anna and her friends are experimenting in new ways of living, not just in terms of relationships but in everything; the Communist Party, in which many of the characters have been or are involved in, is a part of this search.  In the earlier, African part of the novel, Anna and her friends are frenetically engaged with the Communist Party and taking on some of the racism of the British rule.  While later on the novel illuminated the impact of the USSR upon the wider Communist Party, in particular showing the impact of Stalin's death and the revelations of atrocity that followed it on communists outside Russia; for many it seemed to destroy their faith in communism.  At the same time Anna comes into contact with Americans exiled because of the MacCarthy era in American politics; injustice in its various forms is a great concern of the novel.

Therefore, amid this tumult of ideas and identities, it may come as little surprise that mental health is another important strand of the novel, both for Anna and for those around her.  As I had been thinking a fair amount about identity myself before beginning this novel I did find it fascinating; there were a number of those moments of recognition when a novel describes a thought, a feeling, a sensation and you realise that you are not alone in what you feel.  Doris Lessing's descriptions of Anna's sessions with her therapist and of her time of disintegration, are vivid and the latter time becomes immersive, drawing you into Anna's world, it is powerful writing.  While Anna's notebooks, culminating in the final golden notebook of the title, are her way of working out her own identity and what she should do next, having published this successful novel and had a long, ultimately unsuccessful affair.

I have written all this and yet hardly touched on the themes, ideas and people of this novel, nor done the novel remote justice.  The Golden Notebook has to be one of the most thought provoking, absorbing books I have read in years and although its length may seem daunting at first I would recommend making the effort.  As time went on I found that I could lose hours to the book and that I became deeply engaged with what happened to Anna and loved the "Londonness" of the book - certain writers capture London so well.  While doing a little research to write this I have found The Golden Notebook Project, a website containing the novel and the debate a number of female writers are carrying on in the margins, with space for further debate in a forum, which might be an interesting way of reading it.  Lessing's own preface is on there too, although I am glad that I had not read it before I tackled the book, I prefer to make my own impressions, then read the introduction or preface to novels.  The audio book I listened to is available for download here - it is very much cheaper if you join Audible and buy some credits - and I very much recommend the reading, an excellent option for knitters or other crafters.

Perhaps this coming month I will read something that does not concern feminism?

All the other posts from A Year in Books can be viewed here

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Odd Socks

This month I have finished two socks, unfortunately they are not a pair though.  The first to be finished is a very plain, "vanilla" sock in Four Seasons Grundl Hot Socks, a German self striping sock yarn.  There is sometimes something wonderfully soothing about knitting a sock round and round, feeling the wool slipping between your fingers and watching the colours stripe themselves as the sock grows.  I did a good bit of the foot of this sock on my way to and from Sussex on holiday, a plain sock is perfect train knitting.


Meanwhile the other sock, finished today, is at the other end of the scale, a gloriously complicated sock full of twisted stitches and cables, which I find equally, though differently, enjoyable.  Sometimes it can be wonderful to focus and be present in the moment, following the instructions and transferring a chart on the page into 3-D reality.  The pattern is a mystery knit-along from the designer Rachel Coopey, the first of her patterns I have knitted, although I have admired her work for a while.  I was especially drawn to this pattern because it was inspired by the Brighton Pavilion, the most glorious confection of a building, to which we were often taken as children.  Brighton is a place dear to my heart, so full of life and our nearest seaside.


Throughout knitting this sock I have enjoyed the challenges offered and the yarn, Toddy by The Yarn Yard, is a delight, bright and soft, making the twisted stitches "pop".  I would definitely recommend pattern, designer and yarn; I have plans to try Rachel Coopey's Mixalot pattern using some of my sock leftovers.  Once I have finished both second socks that is - I have the leg done of the second Pavilion sock and have begun the second sock plain sock.


Of course with a number of friends expecting babies I should be knitting baby gifts, but sock knitting has this way of taking over.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Bosham in pictures

Now I am home with technology I can get to work I will now post some pictures of Bosham, a place that is very photogenic indeed.  There is a strong sense of history in the area, King Canute lived there and reputedly did his famous bit with the waves there (reputedly!) and Earl Harold set off from there on the trip which resulted in him getting ship-wrecked on the coast of Normandy and changed the course of British history.    But like so many of our picturesque and truly beautiful villages and towns, its prosperity peaked early, meaning that it escaped later development.  In the Roman period it was an area of industrial and trading activity and Fishbourne Palace is at the head of the next inlet.


When I first stepped out of the village street onto the harbour front I was blown away by the sheer sense of space, a great expanse of air and sky, it made me realise just how shut in towns can sometimes feel.




The old mill...

...and the millstream (which also ran down the side of our cottage) joining the inlet.


Tuesday, 10 June 2014


I write this sitting, not in the kitchen sink, but on a tiny patio overlooking a fast flowing millstream in the Sussex village of Bosham.  Two ducks have just come by and tried to beg for food, two electric blue dragonflies are dancing over the water, sparrows are cheeping in the bushes on the other side of the stream and a breeze is taking the edge off the strength of the sunshine.  It is a beautiful spot and right now would be perfect if it were not for the machinery someone is using nearby.  Bosham sits at the top of an inlet which forms part of Chichester Harbour, itself a part of a large region of harbours stretching along the south coast with a long history of trading, industry and links with Europe and beyond.  Today it is a picturesque small village rather dominated by sailing and yachting types.

We have been enjoying the wildlife, as well as that previously mentioned there are a phenomenal number of blackbirds living in the village, I have never seen so many in a small area, this leads to lots of beautiful evening singing as they establish and defend their territories.  The birdsong is amazing, with wrens holding their own as usual.  We have even seen and heard a nightingale.

Yesterday we went to Chichester to explore, it has retained its Roman town plan so you get a real idea of the size of the military forts and fortified cities the Romans built, even the bend in the road north-south to stop the wind whistling through the city has been retained.  The city is full of gorgeous Georgian buildings, some of which combine traditional Georgian architecture with the local tradition of flint in the walls.

I have put most of my pictures into an album on flickr, I cannot currently work out how to put them in here on this tablet!  So here are the pictures