Sunday 29 November 2015

Tea and books on a bright frosty morning...

I’ve been up for quite some time already, and have been busy cooking and doing laundry, with the plan to take advantage of the bright day to hang some sheets on the clothesline outside - there’s nothing like the smell of freshly laundered sheets that have been dried outside.  While hanging out the sheets, I enjoyed walking on the frost-covered, crunchy lawn, and just appreciated the beauty of the white crust on each blade of grass.  The weather this weekend, both days, is perfect for me - slightly below zero, bright and sunny, not slippery... ideal walking weather.

I got some bittersweet news recently.  The Books editor for our local paper is retiring, and so they are changing the Books page. I have been writing book reviews for the paper for several years now, but unfortunately this opportunity is no longer available - rumour has it that the Books page will be dealt with by someone in a nearby city.  I’m happy for the editor, who will finally have time to read all the books on his list!  But I really enjoyed reviewing for the paper, and it gave me an opportunity to read books I would have otherwise not known about.  But there is an up-side to this, as I realized when I was deciding last Sunday which book to read next.  I found that I could read whatever I wanted!  I didn’t need to read a review book, I didn’t need to read a book for my committee (tomorrow is the last day we can add any new books for our consideration), I could choose to read anything!  It was very freeing... But, like anyone who is used to having limitations imposed upon them for an extended period of time, I approached my freedom with caution.  

I chose to read a book that I originally received to review, but I was able to read it without always thinking about how I would review it.  The book I chose to read was Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks.  Robert Hendricks is a psychiatrist in London in the 1980s, a man who has achieved moderate fame in his field for his pioneering approach to understanding mental illness in the 1960s and for the lone book he published, The Chosen Few, which explored the link between heredity and mental illness, which he never discussed and seems almost ashamed to acknowledge.  Shortly after returning from a business trip to New York, he receives a strange but intriguing letter from a man who claims to have information about his father, who died in the war when Robert was just a toddler.  Robert knows almost nothing about his father, as his mother refused to talk about him as he was growing up, but he sets the letter aside and gets on with unpacking and returning to his life.  Some days later, he is drawn to the letter again, and he researches the writer, Alexander Pereira, to find out more about him.  Pereira, along with offering information about Robert’s father, also requests that Robert agree to be his literary executor, as he believes he has some valuable research to offer into the area of the treatment of mental illness, if only the information could be organized and presented in the right way to editors or publishers.  This is where Robert comes in.  After confirming that Pereira is who he claims to be, Robert agrees to visit the remote island off the coast of France, and arrives with little or no expectations.  Rather than an exploration into Pereira’s life and works, however, what Robert finds is an opportunity to reconnect with his past and make sense of his experiences.  Never willing to think about his past, neither when he was a schoolboy living on the farm with his mother, when he was fighting in the trenches in WWII, nor when he was setting up the Biscuit Factory, the treatment centre he began with two colleagues,  Robert refuses to let his experiences define him.  He is unable to connect to the people or things around him, and sees everything in a disconnected fashion.  He is unable to form relationships, and admits, just a few pages into the book, that “all the connections I’ve made with people over more than sixty years of living can’t conceal the fact that I am utterly alone”.  With Pereira, however, Robert is coerced into talking about his past, and his experiences in WWII, his connections with the men in his battalion, and the mysterious, elusive young Italian woman, Luisa, with whom Robert fell in love and for whom he has been carrying a torch for nearly forty years.  What follows is an exploration into his life, how his experiences shaped him and influenced his choices, and what it means to be human. This novel was a compelling read for me for a number of reasons.  It was a love story and an exploration into the effects war has on the body and the mind of anyone who fights.  I also love a book where family secrets are revealed, and this book had that covered.  It also recounted the development of psychiatry and treatment of mental illness in Britain in the 20th century, as well as exposing the absurdity of so many of the major events of that century.  It explored memory, the reliability of it, the value of revisiting the past, and ways we use memories to reshape ourselves.  This book had so much to offer, and was brilliant… until the ending, which I found to be rather flat, predictable and anticlimactic.  But there were many, many sections that held so much promise, and I wonder if my expectations were raised too high because of these parts.  I had almost no expectations when I started the book, as I’d never read anything else by this British author, so I was amazed at the writing skill and the way Faulks could express the essential struggles of the human psyche in one individual who, having shut himself off from others for forty years, is suddenly overcome with a flood of memories and experiences.  I don't want to discourage anyone from reading this book, just because I didn't like the ending. It was well worth the reading time I invested in it, and so I would recommend it to readers who like books about re-examined lives and the search for identity. I want to share one of my favourite passages from the book, where Robert talks about Minitel, a small computer screen and keyboard attached to your telephone line that could allow individuals to access timetables and book tickets without having to wait on hold to speak to a harassed train clerk.  If it expanded internationally, everyone with a phone line would be linked - “you’d soon be able to type the name of an old school-friend into your Minitel, hit ‘Go’ and the person’s address and phone number would pop up - perhaps even with a photograph.  This sounded quite wrong to me.  Childhood and its friends can’t come bursting back into the shadowless present;  they must... live in a place on which the door had been closed, but where the caress of memory can periodically re-mould them into something meaningful:  their job, in other words, is to be fictional characters.”  Oh, what would Robert think of Facebook?!

That’s all I’ve got for you today.  Enjoy the sun!

Bye for now…

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