Category Archives: Beth’s Reading Log

Beth’s online log of what she has read and what she thinks about the books.

‘The Periodic Table’

The Periodic Table (Essential.penguin S.)

No, I haven’t suddenly switched teaching subjects – this is a collection of stories by Italian Jewish author Primo Levi. It was recommended to me by James, one of the current crop of PGCE students at school, as a more ‘manly’ read – he was a bit taken aback by the titles being bandied about at the last book group meeting; there were only two guys in the room at the time, however…

The book is a collection of recollections and fiction that are centred around various elements of the peroidic table. Each story is titled by an element, and this element features in the story, even if tangentally. The opening story, ‘Argon’, looks at the properties of inert (‘noble’) gases and compares their properties to those of his ancestors:

The little that I know about my ancestors presents many similarities to these gases. Not all of them were materially inert, for that was not granted them. … But there is no doubt that they were inert in their inner spirits, inclined to disinterested speculation, witty discourses, elegant, sophisticated, and gratuitous discussion. It can hardly be by chance that all the deeds attributed to them, though quite various, have in common a touch of the static, an attitude of dignified abstention, of voluntary (or accepted) relegation to the margins of the great river of life.

These personal, and often tragic, recollections are surprisingly interspersed with fiction: the account of the ancient Scandinavian who travels into continental southern Europe taking with him the secret knowledge of the working and uses of lead; the man living on an island who buys new wives for himself and his companions with refined mercury; the imagined journey of a carbon atom with which the collection ends. Yet I found all of the stories, whether factual or fiction, tinged with sadness. This has undoubtedly to do with the circumstances of his life – Levi survived the Holocaust, but only just – as well as the great burden of knowledge that Jewish people carry; that within living memory, someone hated them enough to try to exterminate their race. Perhaps I am imposing the over-arching sense of tragedy; I have never been able to descibe my feelings about the Holocaust – it just leaves me with an indescribable feelings of loss and sadness. I visited Dachau while on a school trip to Europe in high school, and the idea of the ovens (which looked like large bread ovens to me – ordinary, until you knew what they were used for) still leaves me breathless with horror. I still remember not being able to hear any birds while on the site, despite the warm spring day and the abundance of trees and other foliage around the camp. Perhaps I just blocked them out, but even the most annoying of the kids on the trip were hushed and stunned by the impact of the camp. How much more so for those who lived though it.

Levi does have the ability at times to see through the sadness and fear to some happy times – the meeting of his wife and their marriage are not elaborated on here, but are mentioned as well as an almost-affair with a beautiful goya (non-Jewish woman) – but they too are tinged with self-depreciation. Both he and Guilia (the goya) remember and reminisce about what might-have-been, although his primary feeling over the relationship seems to be one of regret. And the school-days friendship with the ferrous Sandro ends with the story of his death at the hands of the Fascists and their prohibition of the burial of his body; his body was abandoned in the road.

And yet for all this sadness and tragedy, this is a book you should read. It took me longer than usual – it’s not long, but the emotions it stirs gave me pause – but it is good for us to read about things that are disturbing as well as those that are amusing. But this is also a good piece of writing. It allows us to see into a time that most of us know about but don’t understand; that we can’t understand unless we are a member of a persecuted race. And that all these events may have lead to Levi’s death – the coroner ruled that he committed suicide in 1987, although many people believe his death was accidental – adds to the sadness, but also the understanding of the events of this terrible part of the 20th century.

Fortean Times

OK, now I love this magazine. I first discovered it when visiting Krista and Carson, and hanging out in Chapters one fine afternoon. Carson was looking for the latest issue – and he was kind enough to give me a whole stack of back issues that he had lying around the house.

What’s not to like about a magazine whose regular features include ‘Strange Deaths’ and ‘The UFO Files’? I received my first subscription issue today, and am relieved to find that the quality has not dimmed over time. One of my favourite bits of the magazine is the ‘Sidelines…’ sections on a few pages, that contain some odd, bizarre, or wacky stories. This month?

During rehearsals for a new show at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, actress Sutton Foster fell and broke an arm while she sang a song. The song’s title was: ‘I’m An Accident Waiting to Happen’…

…or…

A 35-stone (220 kg) bear became an unwanted guest in Gerovo, western Croatia, after learning to knock on doors. “I opened the door and saw him standing there and I didn’t believe my eyes at first, then I ran for it as he walked in as if it was the most natural thing in the world,” said Nevenka Loknar. After this happened three times, the Loknar family refused to open the door.

Really? Whyever for?? 😮 Ahhh – hours of surreal fun to look forward to this weekend…

Toast – Not Just for Breakfast Anymore…

I decided to get ‘Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger’ by the TV chef Nigel Slater for a couple of reasons – first, I seem to have this obsession with toast recently – see The Interesting Thoughts of Edward Monkton and Jasper Fforde’s creations – but also I thought perhaps it would be good to read a biography, as I’ve been rather obsessed with fiction lately. And it got good reviews on Amazon, so, hey…

I was both intrigued by the writing style and saddened by the story. Because of his culinary interest, the book is not written in a general ‘when I was 6, this happened…’ style, but is broken down into memories centred around food. It starts with a memory about toast – seemingly the most perfect food, according to Slater – but charts his relationship with food as it relates to his mother (who was a horrible cook, apparently), through the tensions in his relationship with his father, and to the competitive nature of his relationship with his stepmother. Although the memories are grouped in generally chronological order, there is no sense of a continuous narrative. To me, this meant that it always seemed fresh, and was never boring.

But neither was it always comfortable. Slater did not have a terribly happy childhood. His mother died, presumably from asthma although it is never stated directly, when he was about 10. What I found crushingly sad was that he wasn’t even allowed to go to the funeral – he wasn’t even told it was happening. He was packed off to his aunt’s house, and brought home again when it was all over. No wonder his relationship with his father was strained! And although the reader can sympathise with the way his father actively sought companionship after his wife’s death, you ache for the boy Nigel as he is pushed aside in favour of the not-so-fairy tale wicked-ish stepmother.

Toast: The Story of a Boy\'s Hunger

What I found disturbing (although I do hate to admit it – I’ve obviously led a sheltered life…) were the overt sexual references throughout the book. There were a few rather dodgy experiences with uncles or men that worked at the house – Nigel must have been a vulnerable target, as he was the youngest by far in a household with an ill parent – but also the frankness with which he describes his sexual experiences during and after completing culinary college and during his first jobs gave me pause a few times. It’s not graphic – he does have a way of being frank, but not explicit in his descriptions – but it did make me feel uncomfortable to think that people felt they had to behave like that. Like I said – sheltered life, me.

So – verdict? I enjoyed the style, as I found it refreshing not to be a diary or chronology but rather a genuine collection of memories, although – as is realistic, if you tell the truth – I did find some of the content difficult and heart-wrenching. But that’s life isn’t it? Not everyone lives a fairy tale…

Three-Legged Horse

Three-legged Horse (Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan)

I’ve just finished a remarkable collection of stories by a Taiwanese author called Cheng Ch’ing-Wen called ‘Three-Legged Horse’. Those of you who read my entry on ‘The Jade Peony‘ will already know of my fascination for Chinese culture; this collection goes further in my exploration of that.

The stories in ‘Three-Legged Horse’ do seem odd at first because nothing much seems to actually happen. In the first story, ‘The River Suite’, a ferryman is fascinated with a woman who comes out to wash her clothes in the river. He watches her door every day, and yet has only seen her once, has never spoken to her, and has never even looked her fully in the face. And despite a great flood and his rescue of a man from the treacherous waters, the story always centres around this woman and the fact that he has not seen her very often. He longs to – he is also conscious of perhaps not being worthy of her – but at the end of the story, where five years has passed between their first encounter and now, he notices that a doctor is visiting her house. And this is the end of the story; the implication that she is gravely ill and that he will never see her again.

The haunting nature of this story is what permeates the entire collection. I think it is a remarkable example of that writing tenet ‘Show, don’t tell.’ The blurb on the back of the book reads thus: ‘These twelve stories represent the best work of ‘nativist’ writer Cheng Ch’ing-Wen and encompass his major themes: the tensions between men and women, parents and children, city and village, tradition and modernity.’ And this is what he does; he doesn’t confine himself to explorations of relationships that go well or those that end spectacularly. He looks at those relationships that fizzle out before they even start, of the marriages entered into a bit rashly in which the couple must then find out who each other are after they are committed to one another. He explores ideas that are rather swept under the carpet in Western thought – in ‘The Last of the Gentlemen’, the main character decides that that best course of action for his family and all concerned is if he takes his own life, and leaves his children to sort themselves out from there.

Cheng Ch’ing-Wen also explores the tensions that remain in a country that was once torn apart by war. This is something that England and Canada can’t identify with, but I think that France and the other countries occupied by the Germans in WWII would be able to. Many of the stories in the collection refer to the war, in which Taiwan was occupied by the Japanese; many atrocities were committed by the occupiers during the war. But as in every war, there are some local people who side with the occupying forces, and after the war there are always repercussions for these people. The title story, ‘Three-Legged Horse’, refers to one of these people, a man who became a policeman for the Japanese and fled his village after the war, leaving his wife and son to take his punishment from the townspeople. Even thirty years later he did not feel he could return to his village; there were still people who would be ready to exact their revenge for the things he did to help the Japanese during the war. His greatest regret was that he wasn’t a good husband to his wife, that he had made her endure the retribution of the villagers.

This collection has left me with a variety of feelings; awe that such good writing exists, sadness for the people in the stories who do not exist but who illustrate the feelings of all people, irritation at and for people who don’t understand or make the effort to understand others, and many other conflicting emotions. I think this collection does what great literature should – it makes is examine our own lives, and gives us a mirror to compare our own choices with those made by the characters in these stories.

This book won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize