Simply messing around in books


Are any of our readers interested in a book entitled The Art of Growing Old?

I thought not, but to save you having to read it I’ll give a short account of Marie de Hennezel’s book on this topic. Marie is a psychotherapist who worked with Francois Mitterand when he was dying of cancer. She has a Legion d’Honneur, perhaps because of this, or perhaps because she is deeply engaged in the debates about end of life care in France, (she has written several books, one called Intimate Death) and does not shy away from any of the most difficult questions. Is sex still possible for the elderly, how to manage dementia sufferers without taking away all their liberty, euthanasia. She has a big heart, and makes it clear that those who negotiate the fourth age well will need to be of sanguine disposition and engaged in life. She gives inspiring examples of vital old people still engaged in the arts and having a strong connection to their communities. She makes the point that most of us will live long lives now that medicine is more advanced and although we can’t remain young, we can remain relatively healthy until we die. We just need to accept our lot and maintain a positive attitude.

Quite cheering, I suppose, but there was one aspect she didn’t address. For the well-heeled middle classes all this may be possible, but money is key. If you are an old person living below the poverty line you haven’t got much bargaining power. As always, life is never fair.

Other things Gert has been pottering about in include:

Frances Hardinge: The Lie Tree

I raced through The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge’s latest book. She really is a highly accomplished writer with an extraordinary imagination. This book is still in the young adult category mainly because the protagonist is fourteen years old, but Faith Sunderly has to face challenges and find all her strength and cunning to cope with the twisted events in this story, and it’s gripping.

The father whom she adores is a sour dictatorial clergyman and scientist. He makes it clear to Faith that even though she knows she is clever and wanting to be a scientist herself, she never will be, because women have small inferior brains. This book is set post Darwin’s Origin of the Species and the scientific clergymen who are Faith’s fathers colleagues are torn by doubt. They patronise Faith and she has to learn how to learn without drawing attention to herself.

She dislikes her mother at the outset, as she seems the typical subservient Victorian wife, but as the story develops Faith finds her mother has her own devious ways of coping with difficulties. And difficulties rain down upon them. Faith’s father is found dead. But is it suicide or murder? (I didn’t know that at that time the family of a suicide forfeited their inheritance.) They are ostracised by the community they have just moved into, and Faith’s father has left details of a strange plant with evil powers, which unknown others are seeking. Faith has to row into caves by herself, at night, still clad in her funeral garb (she often gives thanks that she is still only in her training corset.) She has to manipulate the Lie Tree to throw her enemies off the scent, and she has to deal with her sad and angry little brother who is fighting a battle to retain his left-handedness.

We encounter devious servants, a ratting meet where terrier dogs compete to kill the most rats and where Faith is challenged to put her hand into a bag of rats, the funeral photos with the corpse propped up looking as lifelike as possible. Absorbing, strange and funny, four hundred plus pages never flew by so fast. Highly recommended for ALL AGES.

Gavin McCrea: Mrs Engels

This has been highly-praised but I found it disappointing.The narrator, Lizzie Burns, is a salty-tongued Manchester Irish woman who lives with Friedrich Engels. There was a real Lizzie Burns, but we know nothing about what she really thought. There’s an enormous story to be told about the relationship between this illiterate working woman and Engels, but this isn’t it. The strength of the story is in the narrow personal struggle of Lizzie (Establish yourself in a decent situation and put away what you can) and on that level it works, but  McCrea is more ambitious, reaching out into the Fenian movement, the Paris Commune and the relationship between Engels and Marx.  The historical detail is rich and well-imagined, and on one level it’s an enjoyable read – but it promises  more than it delivers.

Gerald Murnane: Something For The Pain

Both Gerts have been absorbed in the most recent production of the inimitable Gerald Murnane, surely one of the strangest and most compelling talents Australia has ever produced, Proustian in his commitment to the interior life of memory and imagination and the images that embody that inner life. Murnane is a wonderful writer and an immensely peculiar person, and both are on show in this memoir, which is all about horse-racing. Mix together Emily Dickinson, Proust, dodgy trainers and jockeys, the secret language of racing colours, the relationship between classical music and horse-racing, ladies’ underwear  – oh, look, you just have to read it for yourself.


7 thoughts on “Simply messing around in books

  1. On the Engels front, I’ve learned to stay away from novels about real people (unless they appear in a cameo role) as I end up wondering how much is true and how much is imagined.

  2. I’ve read a very cross rv of this one on a socialist site because so much is made up! From what I’ve read the two Burns girls (Engels was involved first with Mary Burns and with Lizzie after Mary’s death) were quite political and inspired some of his thinking but neither is portrayed that way in this book, and I do wonder why. It would have been a much more interesting and consequential book.

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