The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák – book review

The Signal FlameSet in a small town in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains in 1972, The Signal Flame is a lyrical, quietly beautiful novel about a family awaiting the return of their youngest son from the Vietnam War. The family has just lost their patriarch, Jozef Vinch, who survived WWI as an Austro-Hungarian conscript and travelled to American to build a life for his family. If you have read The Sojourn you are already aware of Jozef Vinch, and of the power of Krivák’s writing – but this is not a sequel per se, and knowledge of the events of The Sojourn is not necessary.

“The trees were always the first thing his grandfather spoke of in the morning, weaving a forecast for the day based on the curve of leaves or a bird he might see nesting in the branches. Or he would tell a story that began with the planting of a particular sapling…its root pack bound in burlap and sitting in the front seat of his rig like a passenger…”

The Signal Flame centres on Jozef Vinch’s stoic grandson Bo is left to work the family’s 2000 acres of logging land and hope that this newest war will return his brother safely to him. However, Sam is MIA in Vietnam, and he has left behind a pregnant girlfriend – whose father killed Sam’s father in a hunting accident. This isn’t an action-packed plot fuelled rollercoaster – it is something more. I was utterly absorbed in this immersive portrait of a family and community in this wooded territory where the cycles of soil and weather set the rhythm of the days. There is a quiet dignity to the portrayal of grief, endurance, and the importance of forgiveness in The Signal Flame, and Krivák’s sense of pace and place is close to flawless. There is a lot of sorrow in this book, and perhaps January was not the best month to read it – so I have waited until now to recommend it to you. And I highly recommend it.

The Signal Flame is published by Scribner, who provided a free copy in return for an honest review.

Books by Women (for International Women’s Day)

It’s International Women’s Day, and to celebrate it Rick O’Shea started a little experiment in his book club* this morning – asking us to pick one book by a woman, past or present, that you absolutely, positively, definitely think should be read by someone wanting to read more by women authors, and share it on social media. I failed spectacularly at picking just one, so it’s gonna have to be a blog post!

International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women. Yet progress has slowed in many places across the world, so global action is needed to accelerate gender parity. In the European Union in 2016, the number of extra days a woman must work to match the amount of money earned by men in the previous year was 67. Ireland, my country, has a constitution that enshrines a woman’s place as being in the home; has an abysmally low conviction rate for rape and sexual assault, and some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the EU. Contraception was illegal in Ireland until 1980, when it was legalised only with strong restrictions – all firmly pro-birth, not pro-life, as the catalogue of horrors inflicted on women and children in laundries and Mother and Baby ‘Homes’ proves. Last week’s sickening discovery that 796 babies were dumped in a septic tank in one of these ‘Homes’ in Tuam, is horrifying not only for the barbarity of the act itself but because this happened in our time, our parents time. This is a recent darkness – the last Magdalene laundry only closed in 1996. This International Women’s Day we should all remember Gloria Steinem’s words “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.” We all need to use our voices to stand up for women, to speak the truth even if our voices shake.

For-most-of-history-Anonymous-was-a-woman

I love Rick’s experiment for this very reason – women’s words are important. Women’s work is important. Women’s health is important. Women are important. Here are some books by women that I think everyone should read. Happy International Women’s Day.

FICTION:

handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

A searing speculative fiction about totalitarianism, this is one of the few books I can definitively state changed the way I see the world. Vivid and terrifying – and uncomfortably plausible. “That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on”

paradiseParadise by Toni Morrison

A brilliant portrayal of race and gender spanning the 1960s and 70s, Paradise begins with the brutal attack on a group of young women in a convent near an all-black town, and unpicks the events leading up to it through the interior lives of the citizens of the town. “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.”

needleworkNeedlework by Deirdre Sullivan

Irish writing is having a bit of a moment, and Deirdre Sullivan is an unmistakably authentic voice who deserves more recognition.  Needlework is beautiful, painful and full of things we need to be aware of. I can’t talk about this book without raving about it, so here’s a more thoughtful review I made earlier.

wideWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

A must read for fans of Jane Eyre, this book gives a voice to Bronte’s ‘madwoman in the attic’. Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole heiress, marries Mr. Rochester… and is slowly driven mad, a madness arising from her voice being silenced, and others speaking for her. Moody, introspective, and sad – “There are always two deaths, the real one and the one people know about.”

buddha atticThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

So beautifully written it hurts, this book, spanning the years between WWI and WWII tells the story of a group of Japanese ‘picture brides’, who travel to America speaking no English clutching pictures of husbands-to-be they knew nothing about. The use of collective voice makes their stories all the more heartbreaking: “We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting.”

NON-FICTION:

beauyThe Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

Smart and righteously angry, this book examines the beauty industry and the rise of a social control based on appearance that is just as oppressive and damaging as traditional roles trapped within the home, showing that the beauty myth is always prescribing behaviour, not appearance. “A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”

sexual politicsThe Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J Adams

The idea of meat as a macho food is overt, and this book looks at the interplay between contemporary society’s ingrained cultural misogyny and its obsession with meat and masculinity. This is a truly seminal work for me – while I don’t agree with all of Adams’ ideas, this is an important and provocative book that has inspired and enraged across the political spectrum for more than 25 years. “Feminist-vegetarian activity declares that an alternative worldview exists, one which celebrates life rather than consuming death; one which does not rely on resurrected animals but empowered people.”

wild swansWild Swans by Jung Chang

This book has it all – if it were fiction it would be an impossibly perfect story, this is utterly unforgettable and one of the few books I would call a masterpiece. Through three generations of Chinese women – a grandmother who was given to a warlord as a concubine, her communist mother, and the daughter herself – we encounter bravery, love, hope, nightmarish cruelty, the will to survive, and an understanding of the epic sweep of China’s twentieth century. “As a child, my idea of the West was that it was a miasma of poverty and misery, like that of the homeless ‘Little Match Girl’ in the Hans Christian Andersen story. When I was in the boarding nursery and did not want to finish my food, the teacher would say: ‘Think of all the starving children in the capitalist world!”

* The Rick O’Shea Book Club is the nicest corner of the internet, and Ireland’s largest online book club with almost 6000 members. Each month, Rick (the Book Warrior!) recommends two books for us to read (see our previous choices here), but the conversation ranges far beyond those selections and the meet-ups, author interviews and blind book swaps are always brilliant. Want to join the club? Just head over to Facebook, and be prepared for your TBR pile to just grow and grow!

 

How successful a novel is ‘Hard Times’?

Hard Times is a novel which from the moment of its publication aroused very different sentiments in the reading public. It succeeded in increasing the circulation of ‘Household Words’, doubling the number of copies bought during the time it was being published, and yet it was still condemned by contemporary critics has having a plot which is “…flat, stale, unprofitable; a mere dull melodrama, in which character is caricature, sentiment tinsel, and moral (if any) unsound”.1 It is almost impossible to say whether or not ‘Hard Times’ is a successful novel, deserving of the glowing praise heaped upon it which has snowballed since Dr. Leavis’ infamous analysis of the ‘masterpiece’, or if it is merely an embarrassment on Dickens’ creative résumé, known chiefly as being “the least read of all the novels and probably also the least enjoyed by those who read it”.2 As enjoyment is a matter of personal taste, in this essay I hope to prove that ‘Hard Times’ is at the very least, entirely unsuccessful as a helpful social tract.

The first striking feature of the novel, which F.R. Leavis was so quick to seize upon, is that it immediately sets itself up as a moral fable ‘for these times’ in its three book titles, Sowing, Reaping, and Garnering. Clearly Dickens meant to call to mind Galatians 6:7, and it the course of the novel it is to be made abundantly clear “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”. In this vein, he see Gradgrinds’ utilitarian sensibilities crumpling around his ears and lying before him in the figure of his daughter Louisa; while the political economy of Bounderby, the self-made man, is critiqued by the revelation that the self-made man is actually the creation of a loving and self sacrificing mother. To be fair, all this is done with a starkness of purpose that perhaps deserves Leavis’s claim of a “concentrated significance…immediately clear and penetrating”.3 Dickens curbs his normal meandering exploration of practically everything in sight, and a good deal out of it, in this novel, in order, essentially to convey the futility of the system he wants to cast off. As a result of this, the minuscule opening chapter introduces the Messiah of Utilitarianism in a hail of “Facts!” as if to suggest that this is “the kind of parched and grudging stuff”4 that utilitarians would produce. In much the same way the novel as a whole is rigidly structured so as to allow him to produce a logically ordered attack on what he sees as an illogical system. Unfortunately the aforementioned parched and grudging stuff does its job too well – we feel the same distaste for the novel as we would do for one of Gradgrind’s beloved blue books. Continue reading “How successful a novel is ‘Hard Times’?”