Monday, July 28, 2008

A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines

I read this through in two snaps. This is after I had started reading it and parked it because I kept stumbling over the dialect; some kind of cockney. But in this second attempt 'nowt' didn't seem any stranger than my Jamaican 'nutten' and I found myself cruising through a tender and beautiful novel about fifteen year old Billy Casper whose life adds up to nothing but misery until he finds a hawk.

A falconry hobbyist demonstrates one aspect of training a kestrel

Poverty and a dysfunctional family are the major blights on Billy's life. He is cold all the time from not having adequate heating at home and from not having warm clothes. His mother cares about him as much as she cares about a row of pins. His brother, Jud cares even less, and his dad left home a long time ago. At school, he is the butt of everyone's jokes and he is the easiest person for everyone to pick on, students and teachers alike. He is good at nothing, except petty theft (called 'nicking' in the novel) and has very few interests except that he pays attention to everything wild (fat lot of good that will do him, whose likely prospect is down in the mining pit at worst, or carpentry or any other 'manual job' at best. He is quite jaded about life and work, he pretty much doesn't care about anything.

But this hawk (a kestrel) that he finds infuses him with a passion that he's never experienced before. The process of nurturing and training Kes brings out the fine, the noble, the manly (or godly if you like) in Billy Casper, the knave.

The most memorable part of the novel for me is when Billy and his teacher Mr. Farthing are trying to analyse what is it about the kestral that is so appealing. The deliberation about its traits is subtly comical because of the mismatch in inellect between the two, but it's beautiful because they find common ground, and in his inadequate, closed cockney, Billy is able to articulate what many well educated people never come to appreciate.

What they say about the hawk is that there is something about it that commands respect. Something that compels the whole world to be still, to be silent and take note of it. This is impotant to Billy whose daily fare is humiliation. But what is it about the kestrel? Mr. Farting says:

I think it's a kind of pride, and as you say independence. It's like an awareness, a satisfaction with its own beauty and prowess. It seems to look you straight in the eye and say,'who the hell are you anyway?' It reminds me of that poem by Lawrence, 'If men were as much men as lizards are lizards they'd be worth looking at.' It seems to be proud of itself.

I am a tad disappointed in the ending. I don't know, but it seems to be fashionable among contemporary writers to project a dismal, existential outlook about life. If Kes comes to signify meaning for Billy, why does Barry Hines have Kes die and have Billy go back to a cold bed as in the beginning of the novel? Or has the experience with Kes so transformed Billy that he is now larger than life? There is not much indication of this based on his lousy attitude at the job interview. I am just sad that Kes died, and I'm vexxed with Barry Hines for making me bawl and blubber over it without showing me that Billy will find his way after this.

A Kestrel for a Knave is has been adapted into an award winning film.

Technorati Tags:
, ,

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Psychosis not unique to Zimbabwe

Robert Mugabe still clings rabidly to power as though Zimbabwe might collapse into the earth's crust if the sun rose tomorrow and found that he was no longer president. He believes this even though one loaf of bread (if you can find it), costs $50 000 000 000 forcing the government to now print one hundred billion dollar notes.

This is only a little bit more psyhcotic than our politicians here in Jamaica who obsess over presiding over crime, poverty and the squalid water that sits in the open drains in Spanish Town and in the market at May Pen.

Edit notes: I've inserted this pic with a link to a petition that helped move Mbeki to break his silence. It's outdated but you could still sign in solidarity.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Write On Jackie!

I want to write. I mean, I want to do more than string words along in a sentence.

I will never paint. I will never play a musical instrument. I do not cook well. There is only one dance that I can do really well, and that probably doesn't count here. Ceramics, pottery, knitting, photography and singing are all out. Since there is no hope that I will have any other artistic acomplishment before I kick the bucket, I think I should write.

I must write.

This is why I started this blog. Actually I've had a few false starts. Each blog coughed and spluttered and ground to a halt after two months or so. Now that I have fairly reliable internet access, we'll see if it is an issue of commitment.

I want to write well. I want to write easily. Stylishly. I want my writing to be crisp, fresh, funny. I want to write with clarity. With candour. With finesse. With force.

To do this requires depth which comes from, among other things, a wide range of experiences. To do this requires practice.

I want to be true to myself. This is one space in which I can do that so I will. I will use my own voice. I will hone my craft and let writing be that creative expression of who I am.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Blogging about books

Last Summer I read maybe two books. I remember Kitty and her Sisters by Margeret Atwood, and I remember something by Tom Clancy. A story centred around the genetic production of a deadly strain of disease.

I have a few books to read this summer. The Da Vici Code is one, Beka Lamb, The Chrysalids and some others. I'm busier this summer though, than I was last year, so we'll see how it goes.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Red is Best

Red is Best is a delightful story of Kelly's decided preference for red, as well as her three year old clarity, that precision, that sharpness with which innocence views the world.

Kelly's mom does not understand about red, but it is pretty clear in Kelly's mind that red boots take bigger steps and that juice tastes better in a red cup.

There is the right amount of repetiton and the vocabulary is controlled. The illustration is superb. Not a lot of clutter, in fact there is no background in the pictures, just cute, got her mind made up Kelly sporting her different red things.

Kathy Stinson did a great job penning this 25 year old children's classic, and Robin Baird Lewis did justice to it with her crayons and things.

Technorati Tags:, , ,

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Musings on Phillip Roths "The Human Stain"

I am reading The Human Stain by Phillip Roth. I have never read anything by him before but judging from the acclaim that's anounced on the cover, I guess this isn't his first or even his best.

Roth certainly is erudite. But he can aslo be vulgar, which sometimes is an affront to my (by Roth's standards) repressed sensibilities. Yes there is a lot of influence from the classics, but there is equal influence from the real, raw world of today.

I enjoyed reading about the fearless attack that Coleman Silk launches against the "eminences" at the college where he is dean. How he does a proper cleaning out of the dead stock, even if it was their grandpa who built the library. At first Coleman Silk is this guy you respect and you believe that his life adds up to a great deal.

Roth then slowly peels off the layers that cover the true Coleman Silk. Will I eventually find a wholesome kernel or a rotton wormy middle that's fit to be thrown away? Is Coleman just a naughty old man just getting his groove on with the helpless Fauna? Or is he worse than that? Or is there more to him than that? Is Faunia really as helpless as she wants us to think she is?

I'm curious now about Delphine Roux. There is a whole lot of sexual tension there too. At first I thought she was an old bag, but now I'm getting to see that she is fairly young.

But the novel is not about the trysts of Coleman Silk.

It's about the Secret he's carried all these fifty something years. This secret is the key to his individual freedom in the context of a society in which one iota of blackness could make the difference between whether you mopped the floor or something else. But this secret also traps Coleman. For example, he is alienated from one of his sons, he senses a connection between this alienation and The Secret. He can't let the cat out of the bag, but he wants his son back.

I laughed out loud at the point where Delphine works herself into a huge knot while struggling over the wording for a personal ad. This is about a twenty page read that takes you back to her early years in France and how she flees France to escape the shadow of her family. She wants to be herself. No ancient, priveledged folk restrictions to define her. She goes to America and carves a name for herself and is doing quite well for herself, inspite of the people who would prefer to see otherwise, like les trois glaces (the three greaseballs, three female coworkers of hers that she can't stand- and that can't stand her).

Anyway, here she is, ten o'clock at night when every other beautiful, successful woman is out on the town or at home with the significant other (or whatever), but here she is at her office, sitting at her computer feverishly typing, erasing, typing again, backspacing etc. etc. the words for a personal ad. The irony is compounded because she unconciously forms the picture of Coleman Silk- the man whom she loves to hate, her archenemy, against whose carreer she led an attack and ultimately succeeded, the man against whom she has defended many 'helpless' female students etc. etc. But now her description of the mate she wants suits Coleman Silk exactly.

But the ultimate irony is that she sends this message not to the newspaper where she wants to place the ad, but to the members of her department (who all hate her guts)! She will be a laughing stock, people will see her zeal to defend the students against Coleman's racism and sexism, for what it is. She will lose the respect of her colleagues and students. She will lose her job even. Her running off from France will end in degrace, not glory. Just as how Coleman lost everything he built with one word- she is about to lose everything with one click.So I laughed out loud.And I began to think back about how Phillip Roth uses irony throughout "The Human Stain". Here is a list I made.
  1. Delphine claims that 'everyone knows' about Coleman and Fauna- actually nobody, not even Zuckerman the omniscient narrator knows. In fact Delhine doesn't even begin to 'know' about her own self, let alone anybody else. Roth thinks that what we don't know about ourselves and other people is greater than what we do know.
  2. Faunia, ostensibly the most ignorant, helpless, morally depraved, is probably the most enlightened, strongest, purest character in the story.
  3. The university is a 'hotbed of ignorance'.
  4. The setting is New England, the home of individualists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thoreaux, but the people a set of conformists.
  5. Coleman seeks freedom to control his destiny, to live life on his terms. He does this by renouncing his blackness. But he actually lives a life of servitude to that lie. He dies in the prison of his rage. In the end he has no control over anything - one little word, 'spook' (supposedly a racist slur) unravels his whole life. Similarly, Delphine tries to construct herself outside 'the orthodoxy of her family's given' but ends up in a 'drama beyond her control'.
  6. Coleman ends up as Delphine's Saviour - his death provides an escape from disgrace. Coleman is also Athena's saviour. It's hard to imagine Coleman, who lives only for himself (I agree with Walt), Coleman, who turns his back on his own mother the way he does and for the reason he does, as anybody's saviour. What an unlikely Messianic figure.
  7. Zuckerman says that Coleman's death is ironic. I haven't figured why.
  8. Coleman breaks down racial barriers at the university by hiring and promoting people from various racial backgrounds. These same people keep silent when the charge of rasism is brought against him. What lends the irony of Coleman being charged with racism an extra twist is Coleman's dark little secret - he is black.

I noticed that sometomes the irony was actually a paradox, but then what is a pradox but irony dressed up in evening wear?

Roth does an interesting thing with narrative perspective. He constructs a narrator who is an author, then he has this author meet and get to know and love Coleman, then he has this author write Coleman's story. In reading the story it feels like you are being told the story by someone who was there.

But Roth loses me at times because after having gone through the trouble of constructing such a real-ish narrator as Zuckerman, Roth makes the narrator omniscient. A real person cannot know what's going on in another person's mind. (If that were so, I'd be scared to think!) Sometimes the story is being told by Zuckerman. But as the action intensifies, or as you get deeper into the psyche of the chararacter you will find that the story is being told by Coleman himself, or Faunia herself, or Les himself, or Delphine herself. Then it reverts to Zuckerman as story teller.

Inspite of this, I actually like Zuckerman. He makes me want to read the rest of the trilogy.

I wonder if the movie does justice to the novel?