Monday, June 23, 2008

These Foolish Things

Some time ago, prominent Irish playwright Gavin Kostick remarked that he thought that nowadays, the theatre should offer you an experience that you can't replicate on television or in films, and he vowed to come up with such theatrical experiences.

Deborah Moggach has made no such pledge that I know of, and that much is fairly obvious from this book. Don't get me wrong, it's a perfectly pleasant story about an Indian doctor living in Britain, married to a British woman with a dreadful father. When the father moves in to their house, the doctor complains to his entrepreneurial cousin, and the next thing you know, they've set up a retirement home in a dilapidated hotel in Bangalore. It's a cute idea, the characters are well sketched out, people's motivations and actions are believable, and there's even a bit of action and intrigue thrown in. But you just can't help thinking, as you're reading it, that there's no reason for this to be a book at all. It's got Sunday Night Drama With a Quality Cast of Veterans written all over it. Like the novel of The Commitments, there's nothing to it that you couldn't get onto the screen, and a production designer could have so much fun with the creeping entropy trying to reclaim the hotel even as older people try to carve out a new meaning for it.

Perhaps that's underselling it a little--it does have some nice themes of changing lives, shifting priorities, cultural ideas of getting older, dealing with families, and the new place of India in the world. But it just lacks some depth for a modern book. As anyone will tell you, you have to be competitive in the modern market.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Books about motherhood: Can Any Mother Help Me? and We Need to Talk About Kevin

If I was a writer for the LRB or some similar heavyweight publication, I'd have added Anne Enright's book about motherhood, Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood in here as some kind of bridge between these two books. Having read several extracts from it, I know that it addresses many of the problems tackled in them, but in a humorous fashion. However, I'm not, so I haven't.

Can Any Mother Help Me? is one of them there social history type books. It deals with the history of a circulating magazine started in the 1930s by a group of mothers in the British Isles who felt isolated and bored with their lot in life. Most of them were middle class and well educated, and several of them had been in good jobs before they were forced to give them up when they got married and/or started families.

Although none of them would go so far as to suggest that they resented their children, they most certainly felt the lack of adult company and the drudgery of domestic engineering, not least because they had never really done much housework as children. Moreover, they became housewives at a time when people of their class no longer had servants, but before the great era of affordable labour-saving devices came in, so they genuinely spent most of their time washing and cleaning and cooking and minding children, and they were mostly quite isolated from friends they would have had in their early adult lives. The book contains many fascinatingly ordinary and matter-of-fact entries about things I found quite shocking.

The two stories that really stood out for me were one in which one of the women talks about what would now be called an attempted rape by a male friend, but which she just treats as a silly incident in which he had too much to drink and became overly amorous (things end fairly well for her, however). This reminded me of Beryl Bainbridge's attitude to rape and sexual politics, which is very much one of "so you didn't want to have sex but he made you. Well, there are worse things, eh?" Clearly a major generational difference.

The other was when one of the women found out that her child had Down's Syndrome. The two things about it that struck me were the way in which she found out: the doctor took her husband into his office and told him, then the husband drove her home, got his courage up, and eventually told her some hours later. Again, this seemed perfectly normal to her at the time, but to me as a modern reader it just seemed the most insidious abuse of male power. The other thing, however, was the public admission of the fact that this would make her life more difficult to deal with than if her child was "normal". Offers of help from her friends and family poured in. People rallied round. Now, okay, I know that having Down's Syndrome is not the end of the world, but it does seem to me that on a societal level, accepting the full spectrum of the human condition as part of one's family does seem to put an extra strain on families, because they're expected to behave as though everything's fine all the time, when it may very well not be.

The admission that motherhood may be harder than it looks, that it may turn out to be a mistake for some women, and that some women feel even more pressured into it today than they might have done in the past (because obviously today it doesn't mean that you have to give up your career, or give up anything at all in fact) is at the heart of We Need to Talk About Kevin. On the surface, this is a horror story about a monstrous child who is the product, in a magical realist fashion, of his mother's failings as a mother. She does not really want him, she does not bond with him, he is angry and distant and weird and violent and destructive from the word go, and she has made a horrible mistake with her life. Underneath, it's a book about family pressure, success, failure, the disintegration of larger society, the whims of the unreliable narrator, and the struggle between the genders. I know several people who were expecting one thing when they started reading it, and got something very different. To say I enjoyed the book would be untrue, but it was very good in its coldness and stiffness and lack of humanity.

I would recommend reading these two books together, as I did by accident. The first really does make an excellent antidote to the second, and both give you a lot to think about.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

ComedyB and BuntyB are married

It happened last Thursday in God's Own County of Derbyshire, where BuntyB is from. We had a great time, the weather and food were amazing, the people were lovely, and all the family and friends were on top form. The day after the wedding, BuntyB's farming family held a hog roast, with bathtubs full of champagne and beer, a whole roast hog, and field games. It turns out that her family are CHEATERS at tug of war, and that my family are lethal at welly wanging.

A game of scotch was also played, and there was a whiskey chase, in which many members of the party ran (or scrambled) up a very steep hill to try to grab a bottle of whiskey, which was then chugged by all and sundry. An excellent tradition, and just the kind of thing there should be more of after roast pig and copious booze. Mrmonkey did not win the whiskey chase.

It turns out that BuntyB's brother is some kind of superhuman being (or "farmer", if you prefer). The night before the wedding, he was in the hotel bar with us till midnight. Then he took BuntyB home and sat up with her a little while longer. He got up at 6am on the morning of the wedding to take his cattle to market, went home and scrubbed up for the wedding, stayed there till 1am partying, then got up at 6am again to do more farm chores and clear the field for the party. He then proceeded to win 4 tug of war matches and the first whiskey chase. He brought his final trailer load of party-goers home at about 1am, then was up at 6 again for what he referred to as a quiet day, but which still seemed to involve a list of about 40 chores, including cleaning up after the party.

He is going on the list (along with The Man from Roscrea and Queenie's Himself) of people who will be airlifted to my compound when the zombie threat level reaches critical.

It's cool to link to The Onion again

This is how you write books.

Monday, June 02, 2008

It's hard to home black dogs

Apparently nobody wants them. Particularly large ones. I find this kind of funny given how funny they are to look at when they try jumping into the air; we derive much amusement these days from watching Woody fall over himself when he leaps after a kicked football.

Guys, big dogs have less energy than small dogs. Sure, they can reach more stuff and you have to put things like pot scourers and chopping boards up on high shelves out of their reach. And okay, their tails can sweep your coffee table clean with one swipe. And they are at the perfect height to dip their noses into your tea, coffee, or beer when you're relaxing on the sofa.

But they are relatively easy to exercise if you like walking for hours and hours, and they have satisfyingly heavy heads when they put them in your lap and sigh heavily at you. Plus, when you're playing tug rope with them, they look really cool when you lift them up off the ground and swing them around. And they keep the horrible young people away from you.

And you can't hurt them when you step on them, or when they slam their heads into doors. This is not the case with small dogs, who yowl vigorously at the slightest provocation. Big dogs save that kind of nonsense for when it's needed. Such as when another dog somewhere within a 50-mile radius is saying hello.