Garlands of Repose: Penelope Lively’s Life in the Garden

Lively, Penelope. Life in the Garden. Viking, 2017.

This short book (199 pages including the index) by novelist Penelope Lively is a joy to read. It is not fiction. Life in the Garden is a “book in which fictional gardens act as prompts for a consideration of what gardens and gardening have been for us, over time” (1). In six chapters, seven if you include the Introduction, Lively considers the effect, the history, and the place of the garden in our consciousness in both fiction and reality.

“Chapters” is not the right word. Neither is essays or articles. Perhaps a better choice would be musings, or contemplations, meanderings. Lively ponders “Reality and Metaphor,” “The Written Garden,” “The Fashionable Garden,” “Time, Order and the Garden,” “Style and the Garden,” and “Town and Country.” She writes lovingly of her own gardens past and present, of famous gardeners such as Capability Brown and Gertrude Jekyll and of the unnamed gardeners of allotments. She understands how our gardens reflect us and reminds us of the importance of gardens in our mythologies.

Each section is introduced with delicate line drawings by Katie Scott: blackberries share the page with fuchsia; poppies have a page to themselves. Interestingly, there are no drawings of vegetables. Lively does not give much attention to vegetables except when she writes of allotments in “Town and Country.” In this section, she also addresses the suburban garden and defines it as “an environmental asset” (181) and asserts that the suburbs, or at least their gardens should be a “cause for celebration, not patronage” (182).

If you have ever taken on a garden, you will love this book. If you have struggled with bindweed, voracious deer, attempted to nurture a blue poppy, battled slug and beetle, or endured ridicule for maintaining Peace in your garden, you will find her words resonate with you. Even if you’ve been denied the pleasures of nurturing a plant, you will find her observations on the semiotics of gardening humorously engaging. If you enjoy Lively’s fiction, you will find here many of the same concerns: relationships, ethics, societal change. This is a book that once read from cover to cover is the kind of book in which you browse later, looking for your favourite paragraphs. There is probably someone on your list who might like this book as a present.




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The Gamer’s Apocalypse: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. Arrow, 2011.

Although I read this book before I read Tanglewreck, I find myself writing this post after reviewing the Winterson novel. Ready Player One has now been made into a movie which has been enjoying box office success and some criticism for not being sufficiently close to the novel. I have not seen the movie, and I’m not at all sure I want to see it. I should probably also confess that I have very little interest in on-line gaming. One of my fridge magnets reads “I still read books.” I’m not sure I want to commit the time to immersive games, let alone take on the expense of all the extra equipment and band width one needs for a good gaming experience. I do, however, enjoy fantasy.

The question for me is to what extent is Ready Player One fantasy or prophecy. Yes, I know the two genres, particularly when it comes to apocalyptic writing, tend to overlap. In many ways, the novel is very close to being descriptive of the world we actually live in: a world divided between the rich and the poor, a world of urban decay, a world where one’s social media presence defines one. Although not quite a Luddite, I maintain a very low social media profile. My blog is the only space where I appear on line. You may also have noticed that I don’t use an avatar.

In Ready Player One the characters’ avatars and their ability to progress through the game Oasis is more or less essential to their being. The novel ticks all the boxes as it develops a traditional quest theme, and it is hard not to become involved with Wade/Parzival as he makes his virtual journey to find the hidden Easter Egg secreted by the creator of OASIS, James Halliday. If Wade/Parzival finds the egg, he will inherit Halliday’s fortune. On the way, he needs the help of other avatars and has to fight the evil Sorrento of the IOI corporation who wish to take control of the game.

So is Ready Player One just a run-of-the-mill action novel celebrating tech culture and the world of the troglodyte nerd? Not really. It’s a dystopian novel set in the not really too distant future that offers a critique of our own world and the dangers that our dependence upon technology is leading us towards. Whether reading this novel will inspire you to fight for net neutrality and open source software, I’m not sure. In many ways, you have to have been alive in the Eighties to understand a lot of the references; the novel is a celebration of popular culture, especially that of thirty or so more years ago. It also certainly raises questions about our apparent headlong descent into social inequality and squalor. The envisioned world of the stacks seemed to me eminently recognisable, in much the same way that I found the world of the Bladerunnermovies recognisable, even familiar. It also raises all sorts of questions about self-definition and our understanding of reality.

If I were still teaching, I would certainly consider assigning this novel in an introduction to literature course. Think of all the useful discussion and essay questions it might elicit and that students might actually enjoy writing about, if they weren’t more interested in playing Fortnite: Battle Royal.

What I realized as I read this novel, even as I recognised its strengths, was that it was not written for me. I am of another generation. Cline points out the dangers inherent in what I might call video or virtual culture but nevertheless celebrates it. Fantasy has always provided a means of escape; good fantasy brings us back to reality supposedly enriched and more understanding of the real world. Halliday reminds Wade that “reality is real” (364) and urges him to use his newly-gained “powers only for good” (363).

If only it were that simple. Who defines “good”? What is good for a globally dominant tech company may not be good for individuals. But what if those individuals are apparently made happy by their ability to immerse themselves in the resources of the globally dominant tech company? And then I think about other various iterations of the story of Percival, the grail knight. Some are unfinished; others suggest a kind of spiritual enlightenment for the young hero but not for the world he inhabits. King Arthur’s world ended despite the grail quest.

I can’t help but think that most of the great heroes are found in tragedies, and I come back to my thoughts earlier in this post and decide that if called upon to classify Ready Player One, I’d define it as apocalypse. I go back to Kermode and remind myself that “it seems to be a condition attaching to the exercise of thinking about the future that one should assume one’s own time to stand in an extraordinary relation to it. The time is not free, it is the slave of a mythical end (Frank Kermode. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue. 1966. 2000. 94). It is this imagined eschatological anxiety about the future even in the satisfactory and expected resolution to the novel that I find its commonality with such writings as the Apocalypse of John, Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” the battle of Ragnarök in the Eddas, and Morte d’Arthur for example. Cline dedicates his novel to “. . . Susan and Libby “Because there is no map for where we are going” (Frontispiece). What apocalyptic literature attempts to do is to make that map. Ready Player One is one such outline for our journey to the future.


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Mending Time: Jeanette Winterson’s Tanglewreck

Winterson, Jeanette. Tanglewreck. Bloomsbury, 2006.

What an enjoyable read this book is. I found it perhaps somewhat misplaced in the adult fiction section of my local library. As I began the book, I suspected that its original intended audience was children. A quick web search revealed this to be the case: Winterson originally wrote the novel for her godchildren who “were always asking . . . why grown-ups never had enough time” ( A good question indeed.

Winterson plays with our expectations of the children’s fantasy tale. There’s the heroine, eleven- year-old Silver whose parents and sister have strangely disappeared on a journey to repair a clock. There’s the wicked mother substitute in her aunt Mrs. Rockabye and her evil sidekick and spy, the rabbit Bigamist. They all live in Silver’s family home, an Elizabethan mansion called Tanglewreck, a house that “never forgets” (43). But Mrs. Rokabye takes Silver to London because the mysterious horologist and alchemist Abel Darkwater wants to find the Timekeeper and believes that he will do so through Silver. But Silver does not trust Darkwater and has already committed herself to finding the Timekeeper whatever it is.

Her quest leads her to meet Gabriel, one of the clan of Throwbacks who live underground in London and who age so slowly they still speak in the dialect of the eighteenth century. Together, Silver and Gabriel traverse both time and space. Will they find the Timekeeper before Darkwater, or will they fall victim to the machinations of shape-shifting Regalia Mason, the CEO and President of Quanta, a company that sells only “things that people had to buy—like air and water and oil. Whatever was in short supply” (137)?  As yet, Regalia Mason does not control Time even though she herself has lived a very long time.

Tanglewreck fulfils all our expectations of Winterson’s writing: playful language, shifting narratives, wit, the playful juxtaposition of the fantastic with the mundane. No-one on the journey from London to Manchester is surprised by “Delays at Macclesfield” (44); in my experience one is more surprised if there are no such delays. One revels in such Dickensian names as Sniveller, Thugger, and Fisty. As is the case with all really good literature written for children, Tanglewreck is not saccharine. As one might expect, good triumphs, but at a cost. Restoring order demands sacrifice. Winterson addresses the whole ethic of the responsibility of power and does not condescend. She does not hesitate to criticise a value system that not only prioritizes “central heating and plasma-screen TV[s]” over the “luxury of time” (56) but also rates the reading of “celebrity magazines and Murder Mysteries” (46) on a par with the reading of Treasure Island.

What for me, however, was most impressive about the novel was Winterson’s presentation and use of quantum theory. How is it possible to be in two places at once? Both alive and dead? How can we make time stand still, and what would we do if it did? Imagine a permanent delay at Macclesfield or while having a root canal treatment. Tanglewreck is satisfying on so many levels, and like all really good fantasy tales it doesn’t leave us with a totally happy ending. Rather, it leaves us with a reminder of our responsibilities. Silver “had done the task that had been given her to do, and that is as much as anybody can do, in this strange life of ours” (415), because we don’t know “what happens next” (415). Winterson reminds us that “sometimes . . . [we] have to do something difficult because it is important. But it still hurts, and . . .[we] still cry” (414-15).












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Digital Image © mlg 2017


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Theme and Variation: Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time

Barnes, Julian. The Noise of Time. Random House Canada, 2016.

This, too, was a novel I borrowed from the library and which had to be returned. It’s not a particularly long book and is, as is often the case with Barnes’ work, an allusive, fragmented yet tightly constructed narrative. Most of the action is focalized at different periods of his life by the Russian composer Shostakovich, who at times was at great risk from the soviet hierarchy and at others could bask in the warmth of its approval. There are some who consider Shostakovich something of a coward who came to terms with soviet regime. Others see him as a man who managed to maintain his own truth against “the noise of time,” a phrase first used by the poet Alexander Blokto to define history. Reviewing the novel for The New Yorker in May 2016, Nikil Saval  makes an observation that summarizes much of what Barnes is attempting in The Noise of Time:  “For Barnes’s Shostakovich, “the noise of time” is counterposed to ‘that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music.’ Real artists, Barnes has Shostakovich say, protect that private part of themselves against history, but if the music ‘is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time’ it is ‘transformed into the whisper of history.’ So we watch as Shostakovich struggles to live a life devoted to music, with history constantly intervening.”(

While I was indeed engaged by the personal aspects of the novel as Barnes examines three particular periods of the composer’s life when he felt himself most in danger—two under Stalin and one in the Khrushchev period—I was in some ways more interested in what Barnes was doing with his novel in terms of its own construction.

Barnes has, I suppose, a certain amount in common with Shostakovich in that he balances a traditional form, the novel, with experiment. Barnes tends to call attention to the very fictionality of fiction, reminding us that any narrative is a constructed thing, and the impact of a good novel lies not so much in the story it tells but in its manner of telling. The Noise of Time is introduced by a traditional Russian proverb: “One to hear/One to remember/And one to drink.” This proverb reminds us that memory isn’t exact, that while hearing may be active, we don’t always hear clearly, and we rarely listen with attention; further, that drinking prevents us from doing any of the foregoing. The proverb suggests that even to approach a sense of what for a better word one might call truth, we need several perspectives. The novel begins focussed on inexactitude, on differing ways of observing.

As I considered Barnes’ manipulation of the novel form, I also found myself considering Shostakovich as a composer and the debates that surround him. Just how experimental is his work? How does his work respond to and react against the tradition of composition? I found Charity Lofthouse’s “Rotational Form and Sonata-Type Hybridity In the First Movement of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony” 2014. CUNY Academic Works. very thought-provoking, and I set off through an internet wander through articles on the sonata and the debates about sonata form and into Shostakovich’s use of the DSCH motif in his work. These “wanderings” underscored my sense of Barnes and Shostakovich being engaged in similar activities in relation to expected and traditional forms. I was even tempted to consider whether Barnes’ use of the three major encounters in his novel does not in some way recall the way a sonata works. More research is required before I commit to that idea. However, as no doubt you can see from my comments here, The Noise of Timeis the kind of book that challenges its reader to see beyond and around the apparent simple thread of events and to revel in allusion, context, and form.



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Transgressions: Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River

Cantú, Francisco. The Line Becomes a River. Riverhead, 2018.

I borrowed this book from a friend some time ago and had to return it before I had time to blog about it, so I’m afraid I don’t have a copy available to consult as I write this. I am left, therefore, with only my lasting impressions. Just what did I take from this book? A feeling of unease, discomfort, not exactly guilt but a sense of relief that I am not faced with solving the problem(?) of migration. As I write this post, thousands are walking through Mexico with the goal of attempting to enter the United States. Thousands more risk exploitation by people smugglers, and death in the desert in their desire to gain a foothold in what they see as a safe haven and a land of opportunity. It is beyond my capacity to answer the question of why they do it when there is no warm welcome for them at the border, and, if they do succeed in crossing without approved documentation, all that awaits is the precarious lives of undocumented migrants who can be deported at any time no matter how long they have gone unnoticed.

The Line Becomes a River is the memoir of a man who was for a time a US border guard. Cantú is himself an American of Mexican heritage, as fluent in Spanish as he is in English. Raised in Arizona, he still lives in Tucson, Cantú reveals a deep love of the landscape that is shared by Mexico and the United States. At times, his prose is lyrical in its evocation of the desert and scrub lands that straddle the border, but nature does not always accommodate political borders, and Cantú wants to understand the border between his familial homeland and his citizenship.

In his years on the border he observes desperation, determination, and death. This book is not an easy read. It underlines the differences between those who have and those who want. It forces us to ask why it is that some countries are able to provide economic and social stability for their citizens and others are not. It forces us to ask what we would do if there were no work where we live. What would we do if our country were riven by a civil war between parties to neither of which we belong? What would we do if we faced discrimination simply because of our religious affiliation, the colour of our skin? Would we stay? Would we try and move? What kind of a welcome would we expect when we reached a supposedly safe place? What is the difference between an asylum seeker and an economic migrant? Between an economic migrant who has immigration papers and one who has not? Between the designated refugee and the about to be deported. The following figures from UNCHR are rather interesting: as are these from the Pew Research Center

What I took from this book was a confirmation that borders are states of mind created by social and political forces. Fording rivers, climbing mountains, and stumbling through deserts to get from one physical location to another may well be challenging even dangerous, but such obstacles are in no way as challenging as overcoming shared states of mind. As I contemplate the queues of migrants lining up at borders in the Americas, gazing through wire in Calais, on boats in the Mediterranean Sea or Indian Ocean, climbing into leaky dinghies and ill ventilated trucks, or simply waiting outside consulates for papers to entitle them to be elsewhere, I find it very hard to maintain any optimism. The Line Becomes a River is a very timely and compelling book.







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A Sparkling Wit. Penelope Lively’s The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories

Lively, Penelope. The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories. Penguin, 2016.

As I think I’ve noted before, short stories are not always my favourite genre to read. They’re just too short. However, the form’s very brevity means that the good short story is a tiny jewel, something akin to a perfectly cut, multifaceted stone. Every facet contributes to a finely wrought whole. I sound somewhat hyperbolic. I don’t mean to. I mean only to point out that finding a collection of good short stories—Joyce and Katherine Mansfield come to mind when I think of writers in English; Chekov and Maupassant, when I think of writers in other languages—is a find indeed.

Penelope Lively’s collection The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories is such a find, and I had actually meant to comment upon it some time ago when I read it over the summer. However, life and library books that had to be returned got in the way, so here I am. The collection begins with the first-person narrative that gives the collection is name: “The Purple Swamp Hen.” Did you know there was such a bird as a purple swamp hen? I must admit to not having given the matter much thought. Apparently, I am not alone. The narrator of the story informs us that when visitors to Pompeii look at his “passable portrait” in the fresco we look at him “with vague interest, and pass on” remarking that “It’s just like a garden today!”(1).  However, the narrator thinks we are wrong, assuring us that the garden of Quintus Pompeius where he was kept “for ornamental purposes” (2) bears no relation to gardens today. We might disagree with him. After all, Quintus Pompeius’ garden “hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm” (2). We’re told the humans liked to “eat out, sleep out, wash the dishes, pluck a pigeon, gossip, scheme, bribe, threaten. Get drunk, utter obscenities, vomit in the acanthus” while the “fauna simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction” (2).

I see little change in the way of things, and this no doubt is Lively’s point. We humans continue to be a somewhat flawed species very worthy of satire. And in these stories, Lively gives us satire. She opens up our vanities and weakness to inspection with a surgically sharp wit. We lie to ourselves as much as to others, we cheat, we keep secrets. We fall in and out of love. We die. The various stories in this collection are often focussed on the domestic, on home and family life. Sometimes she uses the first person; sometimes, a distant third person perspective, but whichever mode chosen, she offers her readers an opportunity for insight into characters and events that her characters themselves do not always have. Lively’s work feeds our own vanities as we enjoy the superiority that her dramatic ironies afford us. At times, too, in stories such as “Who Do You Think You Were?,” “The Weekend,” and “DIY,” she offers a slight chill in the hint of the gothic.

What is intensely poignant in these stories is Lively’s acute observation of the human. She knows there is always more than one point of view. Some of her stories, particularly “A Biography” and “POV” emphasize how we need to understand the other point of view and to articulate our own. But such openness is often difficult, and stories such as “Theory of Mind” underscore that fact. Lively understands the nuances of relationships, especially as those relationships develop over time. What she affirms in these stories is what Charles McGrath defines as her “signature theme” ( the resonance of the past into the shaping of the present.

These stories are a great pleasure. Even as Lively invites us to laugh at her characters’ (and by association our own) foibles, she reveals deep perceptive compassion and a refreshing sense of humour and tolerance: all attributes we need at present.




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