Friday, October 29, 2010

Life in Spain – Part Four – Toothache!

OK, so you move to a foreign country in the hope of a better life/pay cheque/school/society whatever. Then something happens that makes you wish you were back home – even if only temporarily. Yes, I’ve chipped a back molar. I was eating lovely sugar roasted almonds (Spanish speciality) and a bit of my tooth fell off. Thankfully it’s a small piece so I am not in pain but my imagination has gone into overdrive. Visiting the dentist is awful in the best case scenario (familiar dentist, speaking English, comfy chair!) and now, horror of horrors, I have to go to a new, unfamiliar dentist who may not have a comfy chair. Oh No! The temptation of course is to put the dentist appointment off as long as possible, but that’s not good. I just have to grit my teeth and find a dentist, preferably an English speaking one (although does it really matter when you’re in the chair unable to speak for the sound of the scary drill grinding away at the bones in your mouth?)
I’m not happy...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Patrick Ness – The Chaos Walking Trilogy

Some may quibble about the definition of the book, it could arguably move quite easily from post apocalyptic to sci-fi, primarily because it is based on another planet. The question of how to define or categorise the trilogy could make a lively book club discussion for any of the healthy book clubs out there willing and able to take on a trilogy to read and discuss!! Within the novel there are also elements of a classical hero´s journey, with Todd the protagonist embarking on a series of adventures in search of redemption, survival and peace.
As discussed in depth on other pages of this blog, the trilogy has a number of shared thematic links with other post apocalyptic fiction. The individual´s moral dilemmas in times of conflict, the power of redemptive love and the hope for future generations encompassed in individuals who sometimes make moral misjudgments but at heart seem to be good people!
The original premise of the book is genius and although it wobbles at times over the course of the trilogy, it undeniably forms one of those fantastic mind bending ideas that stick in the creative part of your brain, whirring and tickling away in the recesses of head. You´ll forget the novel for months on end and then just suddenly think “Now that was a really clever idea”.
 The premise is that on the planet where Todd lives, the men can hear each other’s thoughts. There is no privacy, no lying and no polite concealing of reality. All thoughts are shared, whether you want to or not, they are heard by other men.
The opening chapters of first novel “The Knife of never letting go”, begin with Todd trying to escape capture…only it´s difficult to hide from people when they can hear your thoughts! The pace is relentless in the first book and pretty much follows the same pattern in the next two, with Todd running away from his enemies and trying to survive against difficult odds. He picks up a few friends along the way, loses others and makes some enemies too.
The indigenous population of the planet is also an interesting creation, their role develops over the course of the trilogy, finally providing some hope of a solution to the agony of hearing each other’s thoughts for the human inhabitants.
The novel explores gender differences, the guerilla tactics of the ´freedom fighter´ women versus the war obsessed and battle ready army men led by a possibly insane megalomaniac male! Todd provides a counterbalance as a sympathetically drawn, innocent male character. One of the exciting elements of the book is the audience’s wait to see if he will become corrupted by the veniality around him or whether he will retain his innocence and desire for peace and calm imbued through his earlier family life.
The new generation of settlers on to the planet seems to bring a hope of a peaceful resolution in the final novel, but they are quickly embroiled in the political landscape, debating the morality of violent action as the first action on arrival on the planet. For a while it seems that there can be no escape from war. Eventually, however, Todd and his friends do find the redemption that they have been searching for throughout the trilogy. Ness ends the hero´s journey in a classical way, with Todd´s final battle culminating in a sort of ending, an ending for Todd and a hope of some sort of resurrection that may lead to a future elixir of hope for the planet as a whole.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

The interesting thing about visions of a dystopian future is the way that they take our modern concerns, trends and scientific developments and take them to their horrific extreme, it´s never (or rarely) a glorious extreme, it always seems to be the horror that fascinates and intrigues the writer and the reader. Is it our fascination with cruel human instincts pushed to their extreme that draws us to this type of literature? Or is it always the hope of redemption that keeps us reading until the final pages?
Suzanne Collins takes the gratuitous voyeurism that has rewarded the show Big Brother with huge success and turned the phenomenon to its most extreme. There´s a part of the human instinct that is both repulsed and fascinated by humans trapped together and forced into a series of unappetising or repugnant acts. The show has spawned many more of its ilk, with television producers flocking like sheep to catch the success of ´reality television´ and make their own profits and professional success and glory from the humiliation of others.
The Hunger Games takes Big Brother to its dystopian extreme. Children from each ´district´ entering a battle to the death against each other, with only the survivor winning the final prize, the glory, the extra food for their ´district´ and their life. In the process, of course, they have become a vicious, bloodthirsty killer, intent only on survival, culling all humanity from their bodies in striving for success. A success that is defined by a sick society.
The novel also touches on our modern fascination with image, plastic surgery and enhancement of our physical attributes, again taken to the extreme. The teenagers in the story very quickly come to realize that their appearance, the editing of the show and the things they say (or are perceived to have said) are often more important than the reality of human relationships and the complexities of moral judgements.
Katniss Everdeen is a wonderful protagonist, strongly supported by the range of fascinating characters within the novel. She is a hunter, a loner, a daughter and perhaps, most importantly, a survivor. In the manner of a modern day and younger Sarah Connor, Katniss will do what she can in order to ensure her survival. By the same token, she cares about her family and others too and this is the saving grace within the dark and depressing landscape that she lives. Katniss seeks redemption and, through her, the reader too hopes for a society that can change for the better.
The trilogy is a fast paced and gripping read. We follow Katniss´ complex journey from survivor of the Hunger Games to a symbol of hope for society against oppression. We encounter evil leaders and complex freedom fighters. From the beginning to the conclusion, Collins never lets the reader rest, with a broad range of physical tests and adventures for Katniss, accompanied by  countless explorations of the moral dilemmas faced by our heroine. There are also conflicts faced by the people around her and we gain an insight into the workings of society and the morality of the huge economic differences between us. Despite being a novel set sometime in a post apocalyptic future, there are parallels that are well worth exploring and considering for the reader.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Modern Classics – Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells

Does it make me sound a bit strange if I say I like post apocalyptic novels? There´s nothing like a good old dystopian vision to keep me turning the pages. So, I am hoping to devote the next few blog entries to my favourite post apocalyptic visionaries (The books are not reviewed in any particular order. However, I am quite pedantic about the fact that Margaret Atwood´s three novels, I sincerely believe, MUST be read in chronological order!)
I´m beginning with Brother in the Land purely because I have just read it. It´s on the syllabus at the school I´ve just moved to work at, so I need to familiarise myself with the text and find ways of making it interesting to young people. It shouldn´t be a difficult task (although, sometimes teaching a text can feel like slowly killing it for both pupils and teacher…saying that I still adore Lord of the Flies, which I´ve taught, with some breaks, for over a decade).
Swindells is unforgiving in his stark portrayal of human nature and the failings of the human race. Echoes of the brutality of survival have travelled onwards and forwards to contemporary post apocalyptic novels such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy. If you enjoyed The Road, it´s interesting to see what Swindells was doing in this genre so many years ago.
Fears of nuclear holocaust seem to have subsided since my teenage years (when this book was published) and some elements from the very beginning of the book do set it in a particular time and place. Nonetheless, the cruelty of man and the hope in love are timeless themes. They reach a sad and quiet conclusion in the book, “not with a bang but with a whimper”, this is a quality I admire in Swindells, he doesn´t soften the edges for his teenage audience and there is little hope of a happy end. The bitter reality is shared.
The story follows the grim reality of life for Danny, the young protagonist. He meets adulthood and responsibility, moral dilemmas and the reality of horrific death in the early stages of the book. A gradual breakdown follows, both of his society and the people around him. There is some hope in the shape of Branwell´s farm and the community values it encompasses, but it is tentative.
Danny is a likeable young man, trying to do the right thing for himself and his brother. There are elements of a hero´s journey in the novel, with Danny’s quest being for his own survival with some mentors along the way and a brief light of hope and love. The story crackles along at a great pace, with the reader desperate to find some hope of survival. Like Danny, we are perpetually waiting for ´The Authorities´ to come along and make everything alright again. Needless to say, it doesn´t quite happen like that.
It´s a great, quick read. Remember it´s a children´s book, so if you don´t like teenage fiction - avoid - there will be grown up post apocalyptic novels reviewed too. If you´re a teacher, it´s worth a read just for Swindells’ great portrayal of what happens to P.E teachers post apocalypse (it has to be remembered that Swindells trained as a teacher before becoming a writer, so the portrayal must be accurate!)
Post Script: My husband (the pedantic historian) says that the title post apocalyptic novel is an anachronism, or was that an oxymoron…because if it were post apocalyptic, there wouldn't be anyone around as it would have been an apocalypse....he's being a pain in the backside and deliberately so, to provoke a response. I suppose the fascination with post apocalypse is would we be capable of surviving? If we did would we be able to create a better society? Swindells, Atwood, McCarthy and Philip K Dick all explore that theme, with wonderful results. Although the nuclear holocaust scenario may no longer be at the forefront of our everyday concerns, there are still preoccupations with global climate change, War, cloning and its consequences, scientific experimentation, peak oil and the ultimate demise of man. Great civilisations have risen and declined, we have not always learnt the lessons of history. Perhaps the fascination with post apocalyptic novels is to do with wanting to change for the better and wondering if humanity can ever achieve it...

Friday, October 1, 2010

Life in Spain - Part Three - Carpentry

Our new house is beautiful. We are very lucky to have been able to buy it. The process was costly and traumatic at times but we're here now, with beautiful views of the mountains and the sea (a great distance away!) One of the many things that appealed to us about the house was the space. Lots of wardrobe space in all the bedrooms for us and the kids to store clothes and toys and other miscellaneous stuff that we have gathered as a family. When we arrived, we realised that the wardrobes are large, with loads of hanging space for clothes, but... no shelving at all.
Thankfully, our helpful Estate Agent (I know it seems like an oxymoron, but in the current economic climate they have to try their best and he really is a very nice man!) has put us in touch with the carpenter who lives next door to the man who built our house. They both live down the road from's all very community based here! The carpenter is called Felix and is lovely, he is also Spanish and does not speak any English. My Spanish is ok, if a bit limited.
The first time Felix came around, he came with our friendly Estate Agent who translated (I said he was a nice man didn't I!) I was at a party (with Owain and lots of other 7 year olds). So husband explained to Felix about the bookshelves we want built upstairs to house our massive collection of books. He then delegated the wardrobes to me, explaining to Felix that he would have to talk to me about the wardrobes...fair enough, I had some plans in my mind about what I wanted where in terms of shelf space.
So Felix came around on Tuesday and I muddled my way through, using the dictionary for words like shelf and drawer which were not parts of my Spanish repertoire previously. Felix was very patient and with hand gestures and post it notes with pictures on, we managed to muddle our way through. He taught me a new word for shelf (it wasn't in the dictionary!). He also grinned at my own cardboard shelving, which I'd muddled out of boxes as a temporary measure when we first arrived. He also found it very entertaining that Steve (husband) had insisted that Felix spoke to me about the wardrobes, delegating that evidently wifely domain, to me!
I'm looking forward to seeing what the shelves in the wardrobes are going to look like...translation and communication, it's a great way of finding humility! I have no idea if my ideas and Felix' ideas about what will eventually happen in the wardrobes have any common ground at all. We can only hope...he certainly looks like a craftsman.
As he left, Felix gave me a great big smile (he's a rugged looking man, he looks like a carpenter who works in the sun a lot, a smile made a huge difference to his face!), he said that he was sure that I would be speaking Spanish within a year. particularly as I am a 'profesora' (teacher). I assured him that I am, ironically enough, an English teacher! He still said that he thinks I will be speaking Spanish soon enough. At least I think that's what he said...