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Author:
• Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Jenni Mills was born in Birmingham, England, in 1952 and was educated at Edgbaston High School for girls. From 1970 to 1973 Mills studied at Sussex University, followed by an MA with distinction in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University where she is at present tutoring part-time. Jenni Mills wrote most of Crow Stone while preparing for her Creative Writing MA. .

Jenni Mills worked in broadcasting for nearly thirty years before writing her first novel. She has presented and produced programmes for BBC radio, four of which won her an award and has worked as a director for both BBC-TV and ITV. She also works as a freelance television director and has written articles for newspapers and magazines.

Jenni Mills, like her character Katie, has been very fond of archeology since her childhood and the fact that the limestone quarries around where she was brought-up have been mined since Roman times, influenced Mills to write Crow Stone without too much effort.

In one of her interviews, Jenni Mills says she found a quarry near Corsham and went underground there in order to be able to describe in detail what goes on in the mines. She found the experience “thrilling rather than scary”. She conversed with a female mining engineer after Crow Stone was published and realised that she described Kit’s job well, when the woman mining engineer told her: “I believe you were writing about me”. She now lives in Wiltshire, in the West of England.

Jenni Mills has written two novels to date: Crow Stone published in 2007 and The Buried Circle published in 2009.

Crow Stone intertwines the past and present story of Katie, an introverted, vulnerable teenager who lives a difficult, under-pressure life, with her austerely temperamental and violent father since her mother left them when she was small. Katie is a bright student who realises her childhood dream and becomes the successful mining engineer Kit Parry, despite her difficult relationship with her father and her uncovering his atrocious deed in the summer of her fourteenth year which changes her life for ever. The novel follows the evolution of Katie and her interaction with the various occurrences and people that she comes across in life.

After several years of hard work, Kit accepts an interesting project for stabilising the dangerously unstable quarries that run under Bath, her home town that she had left in a big black car when she was fourteen and decided then to change her name to Kit as a new start in life. She has never returned to Bath since then, nor ever seen her father again. All the painful memories that Katie has tried to bury all these years are going to resurface and haunt her on her return, twenty years later. Her father now dead, the adult Katie who becomes Kit is still susceptible on the inside but offensive on the outside. Some wounds are difficult to get rid of, they stay implanted in the psyche for ever.

In her new assignment, Kit has to withstand the hostility of the other male workers in a field dominated by men and where workers believe that a female engineer brings bad luck to the mine shafts. Not everything is negative though – the long sleeping flame is rekindled when Kit finds out that the site manager happens to be the same Gary Bennett that her superficial, foolish, unreliable, friends, Trish and Poppy and herself used to be infatuated with from afar when they were all teenagers.

The author describes masterfully and in an amusing way, the psychology and behaviour of teenage girls portrayed by Katie, Trish and Poppy, whether at school or outside it, underlining Trish’s strong character which contrasts with Poppy’s and Katie’s.

Katie is very enthusiastically passionate about archaeology and geology and ironically the two big events in her life take place while she is in the quarries. Her first disturbingly macabre discovery was at Crow Stone quarry during the summer of her fourteenth birthday and the second fantastically thrilling event of the decade was the uncovering of the lost Roman Mithraic temple with the help of her colleague and friend Martin Ekwall, the senior lecturer in archaeology at Sussex University.

The story takes place in Bath, one of the oldest and most charming cities in England, full of historic relics above and below ground. The author embarks with her readers on a journey of concealed underground labyrinths of quarries and the historic, touristic attractions of Bath, like the famous Royal Crescent built by the eighteenth century Freemason, John Wood. There is also some information about the Mithraic mysterious religion which was practised in the Roman Empire, a cult with a saviour, sacrifice and rebirth.

Crow Stone as the author puts it, is about “fear and survival” and the setting turns out to be perfect on “all levels: mythical, metaphorical and emotional”. A captivating psychological thriller with a well constructed plot.

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Author:
• Saturday, March 03rd, 2007

Amélie Nothomb is the daughter of the Belgian writer and former ambassador to Japan, Patrick Nothomb. She was born in Kobe in 1967. By the time she was five years old, she was perfectly bilingual.

After leaving Japan, Amélie spends her childhood in China, Burma and New York. Living as an expatriate combined with the feeling of loneliness, made her withdraw into her own shell. Especially after returning to Belgium at the age of seventeen and having the shock of finding herself a foreigner amongst her own people. The shock was brutal and this triggered in her the need to write as an escapade.

“Hygiéne de l’assassin”, her first book was published in 1992 and was an immediate success, with a French literary prize. In 1993 she published “Le sabotage amoureux”, then in 1994 “Les combustibles”, in 1995 “Les catilinaires”, in 1996 “Péplum”, in 1997 “Attentat”, in 1998 “Mercure”, in 2000 “Métaphysique des tubes”, in 2001 “Cosmétique de l’ennemi” etc…

Amélie Nothomb writes about three books per year, but decides each time to publish only one per year and every time it’s a commercial success.

Her eighth book “Fear and Trembling” was published in 1999 and was a winner of the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française and Prix Internet du livre. The book was translated into 14 languages and sold half a million copies. A big success. Two of her books have been made into films: “Hygiéne de l’assassin” and “Fear and Trembling”.

The main theme of “Fear and Trembling” is the clash of cultures between East and West. It was told in the ancient Japanese tradition that if anyone wanted to address the Japanese emperor, it had to be with “Fear and Trembling”, the emperor being the highest figure of authority. This belief is followed on all levels in Japan, as the author reveals the very rigid hierarchy in the typical headquarters of a Japanese international conglomerate in Tokyo called Yumimoto.

Amélie-San is reprimanded for not taking the right steps by going through the correct channels, despite the fact that her deed was very useful to the company.

What the author wants the westerner to understand, is that in the oriental mentality, it’s not the successful results that count, since achieving them the ‘untraditional’ way can cause more harm than good.

Consequently one has to follow the system blindly and not be an ‘individualist’, which is the worst betrayal to the traditional system: “Mister Tenshi didn’t want to sabotage the company. I begged him to let me work on the report. I alone am responsible.”… “Mister Omochi stood open-mouthed for a moment before coming up to me and bellowing right into my face.” Do you dare defend yourself?” “No, I’m blaming myself. I’m claiming all the wrong for myself. I alone should be punished.” “You dare to defend this snake!”

Then follows the arguments with Miss Mori Fubuki: “I’m twenty-nine years old. You are twenty-two. I’ve been in this position since last year. I fought for it for years. Did you think that you were going to get a comparable job within a matter of weeks?”

Due to not following the ‘correct’ system, Amélie-san has to endure the most degrading retrogression. Starting as an interpreter and ending in the humiliating job of a toilet attendant.

Like most of Amélie Nothomb’s books, “Fear and Trembling” includes some personal, real life experiences. A kind of an autobiography. The style of her writing is indicative of her own character; subtle, humouristic and extravagant. I recall her telling Bernard Pivot in the French TV programme “Apostrophe”, that she takes delight in eating rotten fruit.

Amélie Nothomb’s style is uncomplicated which makes the book easy to read despite the issue involved, being the relationships and methods of Japanese white-collars, and their entrapment in their uncompromising system.

Amélie Nothomb shows us very clearly her compassion for those people, but at the same time expresses her frustration at being unable to change anything, or even to reason with them:
“Le plus insupportable, c’était de voir mon bienfaiteur humilié par ma faute. Monsieur Tenshi était un homme intelligent et cosciencieux: il avait pris un gros risque pour moi, en pleine connaissance de cause. Aucun intérêt personnel n’avait guidé sa démarche: il avait agi par simple altruisme. En récompense de sa bonté, on le traînait dans la boue.”
She makes us aware of her concern with human relationships throughout her book.

Amélie Nothomb’s humouristic tone can be hilarious at times or even like a caricature, but nevertheless carries behind it more than what it suggests.

Unlike other books we read, in “Fear and Trembling”, the author doesn’t take us anywhere in Tokyo, apart from the restricted view from her office window. The year Amélie spends at the Yumimoto company is all devoted to a description of the Japanese headquarters, the people working for it, their devotion to their work and the hierarchical system. Not forgetting to describe at length, the uncompromising Japanese mentality.

At the end of her one year contract with Yumimoto, Amélie-San returns to Europe. And like a phoenix, after all the humiliation endured, emerges from the ashes, glorious and successful with her prize winning book “Hygiéne de l’assassin”.

She then receives a congratulatory letter from her former superior, Mori Fubuki acknowledging her success. The letter was written in Japanese as a sign of friendship which seems to have been accepted at last.

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