Saturday, 19 April 2014

Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt by Kathleen B. Jones

Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt

by Kathleen B. Jones (the Other Kathleen Jones!)

This is the story of my thinking journey with Hannah, a tale at once political and personal, singular and common.  Diving below the surface of her writing, the narrative arches and bends, assembling vignettes about Hannah and me into a collage of life stories, a kind of intellectual and emotional scrapbook.

That is how Kathleen B. Jones describes her unusual biography.  I read it with great interest - not only because it’s by my American name-sake, a writer, feminist and academic who has often covered similar ground, but also because I've followed the progress of the book on the internet for a couple of years, particularly the fraught process of publication.

Kathleen B. Jones is trained in political theory and a Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at San Diego University, California.  But these days not even the phrase ‘leading academic’ means that you can get your work published by university presses, and the unusual structure of this book didn’t meet any of the academic norms.  Increasingly, ‘leading academics’ are turning to self-publishing to get their work in front of the public and it’s something to be grateful for.  One of the books I contributed to, published by Ashgate Press, is currently only available at a cover price of £56.00 - You can buy Diving for Pearls for a mere £7.97.

The book had its beginning in personal memoir.  Everyone wants to make sense of their lives, Kathleen B. Jones begins. ‘Some of us do that by telling a story’, but for Jones it was different.  ‘In the dusk of middle age, I chose a peculiar path.  Surprising myself by reversing directions, I took a road I’d abandoned, and found myself exploring again the thinking and life of Hannah Arendt’.

As a young woman, Hannah Arendt (1906-75) was a disciple (and lover) of the pro-Nazi German philosopher Martin Heidegger.  She was a Jewish woman who fled Nazi Germany to live in America, where she established herself as an eminent contemporary philosopher.  It was a title she often denied, choosing to describe herself instead as a ‘political theorist’.  She became the first female lecturer at Princeton and a fellow at Yale and was the subject of a 2012 film in Germany.

David Strathairn and Melissa Friedman as Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt in Kate Fodor’s play ‘Hannah and Martin’.

Her views were often controversial - Arendt wrote a book on the Eichmann trial subtitled ‘A Report on the Banality of Evil’ which criticised Jewish leaders for their actions during the Holocaust and appeared to suggest that the Nazis were not necessarily the monsters of popular thought - they were ordinary people who acquired power and did evil things because they didn’t think enough about what they were doing, and neither did the people who put them in power.  Evil can arise from mere thoughtlessness, unthinking conformity and obedience.  According to Arendt ‘it was “ordinary people,” neither stupid nor necessarily ideologically motivated, who committed the great atrocities of the Holocaust’.

Defining herself as both a German and a Jew, Arendt wrote about identity and human rights. She was very clear-sighted and pragmatic. ‘The right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity, should be guaranteed by humanity itself.  It is by no means certain whether this is possible’.  But Arendt’s insistence on retaining her German identity, the events of her own life, and particularly her relationship with Heidegger, gave her critics a great deal of fuel for their opposition.  Arendt described love as ‘perhaps the most powerful of all anti-political human forces’.

Arendt was, as Jones points out - ‘A brilliant political philosopher, who refused to call herself a philosopher, a woman who never considered her sex an obstacle in her life, a Jew who was called anti-Semitic, and a rigorous thinker who wrote passionately about hatred and love’.  As a feminist and a writer, Jones found herself fascinated by the apparent contradictions in Arendt’s writing ‘no matter how much I argued against her, I had to admit I admired her writing . . . I found myself circling around and then diving deeper into Arendt’s writing , each time retrieving some pearl of insight, which shifted my understanding and made me reassess my position’.   Hannah Arendt’s voice became particularly insistent when Jones began to write a memoir of her own unusual and complex life.  ‘She wouldn’t leave me alone.  Every time I penned a line bordering on an all too confident assertion, I’d hear her voice in my head.  “Dive deeper, you’re not really thinking,” it said.’

The form of both Jones’ biography of Arendt and her own memoir changed as they merged into one - ‘a disquieting dialogue between two women one long ago dead, about what and how the heart knows yet prefers to keep to itself.  I let my imagination go visiting, entering her life and her work, and began to see the world and my own place in it from an altogether different perspective’.

The result is an unusual book - a thoughtful, penetrating (and sometimes painful) account of a life lived that uses the insights of this life to illuminate that of another. ‘I began to retrieve anecdotes from her life and mine, finding meanings in them I believe are more universal than applied only to my particular case’. What Jones learns from her experience informs her view of Hannah Arendt both as a woman and a philosopher and what Arendt wrote about herself teaches Jones how to think about her own.

One of the things that Jones learned was that the past is not necessarily ‘a set of events determining my present, as if one’s life was fully fashioned at its beginning, as if only time and circumstance were needed to create the equation that produced a person as its inevitable result.’  She abandoned the idea of Fatalism and accepted that a human being must admit their own limitations and ‘accept responsibility’ for what is theirs to control. Human beings are much more than ‘a leaf in the whirlwind of time’.

When Jones re-read Arendt’s book on Eichmann, it made her think ‘about monsters and the hold I’d let them have in my life’.  Reading about Jones’ monsters made me think about mine too and some of the terrible relationships and bad decisions I have had to take responsibility for.  That’s one of the things about this book - it makes you think, as both Jones and Arendt intended.

Jones is also interesting on the bias of the biographer - how we interpret the lives of the people we study according to events in our own.  Someone called Elzbieta Ettinger had previously written about Arendt’s life and used her subject’s relationship with Heidegger to provide the biographer herself ‘with a thinly veiled means of self-laceration, a confession, never made public of ever having become such a man’s prey’.  Ettinger had had a similar relationship.  As biographers we bring our own lives, our own judgements and prejudices to the text.

But there is more - Arendt’s position as an exiled German Jew makes Jones think about our own precarious position in an increasingly unstable world.  ‘We have all become refugees, wandering far from some imagined promised land of our ancestors, searching for a new way to be at home in a world where we might connect with and live with others with whom we have no evident or common ties binding us together as a people, except the shared fact of having been born.’ 

This book is indeed a thinking journey, written in beautiful prose, bringing together two women whose lives have made me think again about my own.  But beware, as Arendt warned, ‘There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is a dangerous activity’.

You can find more about Kathleen B. Jones on her website here.

And you can buy Diving for Pearls on

And in Paperback

And from

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Claude Michelet: Firelight and Woodsmoke - worth committing book murder for!

Firelight and Woodsmoke

Claude Michelet

This is a great doorstop of a trilogy, which I cut into its three component parts with a Stanley knife and have been carrying around with me on my travels, abandoning each section as I finished it. I’d like to think that they got adopted by a traveller on a train, a curious customer in Costa’s, or a bored passenger at Stansted Airport.

The Firelight and Woodsmoke saga was recommended to me by a friend who knows how much I enjoy European literature. Claude Michelet is one of France's most distinguished authors. The books are translated into English, but aren’t currently in print in the UK or available as e-books.  I managed to get an omnibus edition second hand for 82p. Worth committing book murder for though.  It’s the story of a village and four generations of the Vialhe and Dupeuch families, in the Limousin region of France. They are peasants in a community that still has a medieval structure - the Vialhes are relatively prosperous; the Dupeuchs at the bottom of the heap.

The first novel opens with three children tracking a wolf on the last day of 1899.  A few hours later, a baby girl is born, Mathilde Dupeuch - the first child of the 20th century.   The story takes the inhabitants from the oppressive (and often heart-breaking) observance of centuries old traditions and superstitions to a modern age of international flights and mechanisation.  We see the arrival of the first car, the first train, the first electric light, and observe the effects of two world wars and the ravages of economic boom and bust - all through the eyes of this small rural community.

It’s difficult to summarise such a wide ranging plot with so many different characters. The narrative focuses mainly on the children - Pierre-Edouard, Louise and Berthe Vialhe, Leon and Mathilde Dupeuch.  Pierre-Edouard and Leon are of similar age, but very different temperaments.  They are all the children of uneducated peasant farmers and their parents expect them to conform to traditions they believe to be written in stone.  But times are changing fast and there is considerable conflict between the generations.  Berthe escapes the oppression of her family to become a fashion designer in Paris; Louise runs away to marry the man she loves rather than accept the marriage her family have arranged for her. The friendship of the two young men soon turns to enmity in a clash over land and politics.

Pierre-Edouard stays on the farm, marries and creates a new generation of Vialhes.  His eldest son Jacques excels at school and quarrels with his father over the way the farm is being run - wanting to introduce more modern farming methods. Jacques marries Mathilde, the youngest sister of his father’s enemy, Leon Dupeuch.  Leon, whose father committed suicide when he was young, comes from a family who barely had enough to eat, sometimes living like gypsies.  As an adult, he becomes a successful cattle dealer, wealthy enough to buy out the local gentry who have been impoverished by the Great Depression.

Jacques and Mathilde quietly consolidate the family land as their neighbours, less willing to adapt to 20th century innovations, are forced to sell off their ancestral acres.  But the grandchildren they are preserving the land for want something different.  They are interested in other careers, not the back-breaking life of a rural farmer.

There is real poetry in Claude Michelet’s prose, and the narrative has the quiet quality of a French film.  It’s a beautiful account of how life changed forever in a dramatic fashion during the 20th century - how moving away from our roots in the land that ultimately sustains us has created a fractured society that, although economically more prosperous, is otherwise impoverished.  The Correze has wifi now, but there are no more wolves left to track.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

In the Beginning: Catherine Dunne

In the Beginning

by Catherine Dunne

Published by Fado Fado

£2.62 on Kindle

I'm a great fan of Irish writing - the tiny damp isle seems to have bred so many fine writers and poets. Catherine Dunne was recommended by an Italian friend who'd read her in translation and loved the novel. It's a great plot - Rose strives to be the perfect executive wife - immaculate home, pampered children, beautifully cooked meals - and she believes her world, though not ideal (what marriage ever is) to be stable and secure. But one morning her husband, off on a business trip to Europe, turns round at the door and tells her that he's leaving and he won't be back.

The shock of the announcement brings everything that Rose had believed to be rock-solid, tumbling in rubble around her ankles and there are a series of unpleasant discoveries waiting for her. What do you do if you put your card in the wall and no money comes out of the cash machine? How do you feed your children and pay the bills when the bank account is empty?

The novel also gives us the back-story of Rose's relationship, slices of narrative between the contemporary story which gradually reveal the layers of sand that her marriage had been built on.

But Rose is more resourceful than she realises and she's surrounded by loving friends. Day by day she grows stronger and, when she discovers the enormity of what her husband has done to her, she is able to deal with it. I loved the way the book was written - lived each episode with the characters and enjoyed every moment of Rose's revenge. I'm going to be reading more of Catherine Dunne's books.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Transatlantic: Colum McCann


by Colum McCann

Published by Bloomsbury
Kindle Price £3.08

The cottage sat at the edge of the Lough.  She could hear the wind and rain whipping across the expanse of open water.  It hit the tree and muscled its way into the grass.......

A friend lent me this book and I was so hooked I had to buy it on Kindle when I gave the book back.  It’s written in lyrical Irish prose that is almost poetry - a style that accommodates both internal monologue and external observation. There are several strands to a story that moves backwards and forwards in time across five generations of a family and from one side of the Atlantic to another.

It touches on the anti-slavery movement that became connected to women’s suffrage and the Irish republican cause. There’s a brief, but important, meeting between a former US slave and an Irish serving girl. Every detail is significant.  But it begins with the historic flight across the Atlantic made by Alcock and Brown, observed by two women - a journalist and a photographer. One of them gives a letter to Brown and asks him to post it when he reaches Ireland.  He agrees, but it is a very long time before the letter is ever opened.

At first I thought it was a series of linked short stories, but the weaving of the different strands became tighter as the novel developed and the relationship between the different narratives became clearer and more compulsive.  It's good to know that publishers are still publishing novels of this quality.

I really loved this book and it gets an extra star for the ‘wow’ factor.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Cauldstane by Linda Gillard


by Linda Gillard

Since I discovered The House of Silence, I've been reading Linda Gillard's novels and wondering why on earth her publisher ever allowed her to go 'Indie'. They must be kicking themselves. She's providing exactly what readers seem to want - a rattling good story, interesting characters, romance, real dilemmas and traumas we can all empathise with, and an original mix of genre elements.  If you like this recipe, you're never going to get bored.  Not all Linda's books are to my taste, but the writing is always impeccable.

I've followed the genesis of Cauldstane via Linda's Facebook author page and been intrigued by the little snippets she's shared.  I also admired her determination to press on with the book through the long recovery process of a serious brush with cancer.  Her honesty and integrity in sharing her journey gave me a greater respect for her skills as an author.  This is someone who writes about traumatic human situations with personal knowledge.  It's this compassion and empathy that inform the pages of this unusual novel. Think Northanger Abbey meets Daphne du Maurier and Bridget Jones with a bit of Downton Abbey thrown in. It's absolutely modern and gloriously gothic.

There's a remote and decrepit Scottish castle, (with a curse attached, of course), a wicked stepmother, a feisty but emotionally vulnerable heroine, more handsome men than you can shake a sword at, and a very dangerous ghost.  The main male character, Sholto, has made a career out of adventure, but is now getting old, short of money to keep the roof over his head intact, and wants to tell his sometimes scandalous life story.  He has chosen J.J. Ryan to ghost-write it for him, picking the name from a Society of Authors' list of recommendations without realising that J.J. is a woman.  Jenny falls in love with Cauldstane and its occupants and is totally committed to the project, until ghost-writing of another kind comes between her and the family.  To tell you more would be to spoil the plot, so I won't.

I'm not a great fan of the Gothic genre, though I did read quite a lot of it when I was younger, but this novel is a really good read and I was happy to suspend disbelief and just enjoy myself between the covers.  It could only be improved by being read with a stiff malt whisky in one hand and a plate of Mrs Guthrie's ginger cakes on the side!


by Linda Gillard

Monday, 3 February 2014

From Writing with Love by Avril Joy

From Writing with Love

Avril Joy

Published by Room to Write

This is not a ‘how to’ writing book in the usual sense, but an account of one writer’s journey from the first tentative words on the page, through self-doubt and crises of confidence, to eventual publication and a Costa award. ‘I came late to writing,’ Avril says, ‘and after a matter of only months found myself hopelessly in love’.  After some ‘early, modest success’, came a series of knock-backs, until in 2011 she ‘came dangerously close to falling out of love with the one thing that had changed my life’. Avril generously shares everything she’s learned in the process of becoming a writer - the heartache, the envy, the rejections, the apparent successes that turned out to be almost as damaging as the rejections, and the survival mechanisms she developed to cope with them.

The purpose of the book is to encourage and inspire, rather than instruct - to help an individual find their own voice, their own path through the jungle, rather than offer prescriptive advice.  Any advice that Avril shares is sound and well-tested. This is a skill-share, offering hard-won knowledge and insight from a clear-eyed author whose humility hasn’t been altered by her success.

What is necessary, Avril stresses, is to stay in love with writing.  Too often, for a professional author, all the fun goes out of it.  If what we do becomes too deadly serious, then our writing will suffer and so will we. ‘We should be in love with words.  We should swim in them, drown in them.... Be passionate about words; in the end they are all we have’.

She has some good quotes that reflect on the current state of publishing - this one from William Trevor: ‘In the end, only the books matter. Nowadays, books tend to be shovelled into a chat-show wheelbarrow, more talked about than read.’

Avril went down the road of self-publication, though she still has a foot in both camps and a very pragmatic attitude. ‘It’s very easy to get seduced by the possibilities of success and the lure of agents and editors,’ she warns.  ‘It’s not difficult to find yourself losing your way and writing something that’s not true to who you are.  I’ve done it.  I’ve written more sex into a book to please an agent.  I’ve written crime fiction, invented a serial killer, ditched one book and moved onto the next, and more . . . Being new to writing I was vulnerable to such persuasions (which I have no doubt at all were made from a genuine desire to help me get a book deal). I wouldn’t do it like that a second time round because in the end if you’re not writing from your own truth the writing is not truly yours.’

One of Avril’s good ideas is that of having a ‘writing buddy’ - someone you can trust to share work with and give feedback.  Avril meets hers on a regular basis for a writing and reading session giving each other mutual support.  You can talk through a particularly difficult plot twist, get feedback on a piece of writing you’re not sure about.  I’d love a writing buddy - though I think it’s probably difficult to find someone you’re completely in tune with.  Avril adds a quote from E.B White - ‘It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer’.

I liked this book very much - so much of what Avril says resonated with me.  It gave this rather jaded, post-biography, writer a definite injection of enthusiasm.

From Writing with Love

Avril Joy

Published by Room to Write 

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Death Comes to Pemberley: P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley

by P.D. James

P.D. James confesses, in her essay on the genesis of the novel that she is 'ambivalent' about sequels. 'The greatest writing pleasure for me is in the creation of original characters, and I have never been tempted to take over another writer's people or world'.  But that is exactly what she has done in setting her new murder mystery in the heartland of Jane Austen's world - Pemberley, the home of Darcy and his wife Elizabeth Bennet. James goes on to explain that 'Austen's characters take such a hold on our imaginations that the wish to know more of them is irresistible'.  James is not the first to enter Austen's fictional domain with her own take on it - and currently another novel 'Longbourn', by Jo Baker, is exploring the upstairs/downstairs world of Elizabeth Bennet's family home and there is also 'Georgiana Darcy's Diary' by Anna Elliott and Laura Masselos.  There is also the very entertaining 'Lydia Bennet's Blog', by Valerie Laws.

In 'Death Comes to Pemberley', Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years and have a young son.  Pemberley is a tranquil, idyllic place - Mr Bennet is a frequent, welcome visitor, and Bingley and Elizabeth's sister Jane have established themselves nearby.  The one source of disharmony is the youngest Bennet daughter Lydia, married to the dissolute Wickham.  Lydia is 'received' (though scarcely welcomed) by her sisters for occasional visits, but her husband is barred.  Both are impecunious and dependent on their more fortunate relations and Lydia has an attitude of grievance towards her sisters.

It's hardly surprising, given Austen's portrayal of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, that James has chosen Lydia to be the messenger of an event that is going to break the tranquility of Pemberley for ever.  On the eve of the annual ball, a carriage comes to a violent halt at the door and Lydia tumbles out screaming that her husband has been murdered.  Someone has indeed been murdered, but it is Wickham who is arrested for the crime.  Darcy, Elizabeth and their friends must now come to aid of a man they despise, but who is publicly part of their family.

I found the novel rather slow and the style more ponderous than Austen's - particularly the dialogue. But the plot is absorbing and the beautifully researched details of 18th century criminal procedure are fascinating, particularly to someone who once studied law with a view to being called to the Bar. It gives a very clear picture of how the law worked in small rural communities.  Darcy, who is a magistrate, is also a reformer, arguing for an appeal court to review the decisions of juries.  'Could it not be possible to have an appeal court consisting of three, or perhaps five, judges to be convened if there were dissension over a difficult point of law?'  His friend, Alveston, a barrister, comments that the jury would be outraged if they felt that their decision was to be challenged by a judge.  Public opinion, he proposes, is the best court of appeal;  'I can assure you there is nothing more powerful than the English when seized with righteous indignation'.  And so it proves.

I enjoyed this excursion into Jane Austen's world - I hope I'm still around at the age of 90 and still capable of writing such a complex novel as this one!  I wonder what she's plotting now?