Hazel McHaffie


Neither male nor female, bond nor free

It’s a long time since I read my last (and until now, only) novel about hermaphroditism: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. MiddlesexPerfect title, huh? But I loved that, so when I saw that another one on the subject had come out this year, it went straight onto my wish list. It’s Annabel by Kathleen Winter. A brave subject for any author to tackle, never mind as a debut novel. And it became my second read on a Kindle.

Annabel is set principally in the wild wastes of Labrador, populated by self-sufficient trappers and the women they leave behind. Kathleen Winter’s descriptions are amazingly evocative of a 1960s Canadian landscape and a way of life far removed from 21st century life in the central belt of Scotland.

AnnabelThe rather old fashioned, sedate prose seems to fit with the lives of these families. Restrained and economical. Caught in a time warp. Veiled references to ambiguity and its consequences, tucked into all sorts of corners and margins of the text – in descriptions of places and people, in experiences urban and rural, in relation to the psychological as well as the physical dimensions of its characters – reflect the ambiguity attached to the subject matter.

Treadway Blake is a silent, introverted but well-read trapper, more at ease in the wilderness than at the hearth. When he eventually finds out his firstborn child is ‘neither a son nor a daughter but both’ his decision is clear: ‘He’s going to be a boy. I’m going to call him Wayne, after his grandfather. We’ll get the doctor in and we’ll see.

Jacinta, his wife, is a city girl at heart, who is doing her best to adjust to the deprivations and restrictions of life as a trapper’s left-behind girl. Her maternal love accepts her child as he/she is; she is content to leave well alone, to let Wayne grow up ‘without interference from a judgemental world’; the two complementary halves giving him/her extra power, unusual sensitivity.

I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of the story so I won’t give any more of the plot-line away but suffice it to say that it’s a tender and sympathetic tale, rather slow-paced but insightful. Much of it captures the normal mundane everydayness of life in a backwater in the 60s, but it also contains quite horrifying developments and experiences in Wayne’s life which shocked me into thinking in a different way about this complex topic.

Overall I felt I had a better sense of the confusion and consequences of gender ambiguity after reading it. And yet, there was no sense of the issue dominating the narrative.  And you know how this is an abiding concern of mine.

So if you’re looking for something different, something that will be discomforting at times, heartening at others, but will make you think, then this is one for your Kindle or bookshelves.

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed this week’s post is going out early. Next week it’ll be late. Explanations to follow in due course. Plus the latest developments in my attempts to convert my backlist to ebooks.

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Kindle conversion

I feel like a kid at Christmas-time!

OK, I know. I admit it. I’ve been living in the dark ages as far as electronic books are concerned.  Positively antediluvian, in fact.

Shocking to think that it’s 30 years since Michael Hart dreamed up Project Gutenberg, at the time a seemingly eccentric and idealistic scheme to copy the texts of tens of thousands of books into electronic form and distribute them freely. A scheme which spearheaded the ebook revolution. And I’m only now catching on to it. OK, I’m hanging my head in shame.

But since Hart died this month perhaps this blog can serve as a tribute as well as a confession. My very resistance to ‘his’ technology means I  owe him space and respect today at the very least.

It all started in 1971 – before Microsoft, before PCs. Indeed, when Hart had a vision of a world ‘where you can walk into a public library and get 90 percent of the information you need copied on a disk that you don’t have to return’, computers were vast machines with huge tapes attended by men in white lab coats. I remember them well! My first university post required me to use those cumbersome appliances.

This was in the days prior to scanning machines too. Hart spent twenty years in obscurity laboriously typing away by hand. He copied 313 books (vast tomes like the works of Shakespeare, the Bible, the American Constitution included). He met with both ridicule and scepticism. But as all things electronic changed, his scheme gathered momentum and credibility, others latched onto his coat-tails, and this year Project Gutenberg boasts more than 36,000 items in its collection, written in 60 different languages, with an average of 50 new ebooks being added each week. Mind blowing, eh?My bookshelvesSo who was I to be so sceptical? Oh but I do so love ‘real’ books – the ones you hold in your hand, and recognise from their covers, and collect on your shelves. Their smell, their heft, their feel. The way they change with use and loving. Everything about them really.

And my prejudice has been stoked by the twin threats of diminishing royalties and piracy which hover over writers and publishers who venture down the electronic route. Not to mention the ongoing challenge of ever-changing technology.

But I do try not to be a troglodyte. Honestly, I do. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, I’ve come to grudgingly recognise the inducements of ebook publishing. Indeed I’m seriously considering it for myself. Hang it, I even went to an all-day conference on the subject run by the Society of Authors in Scotland on Saturday! And I’ve just discovered Lin Anderson’s blog devoted to it. Wahey! Positively steaming into the 21st century!

And of course, I do see the potential advantages of dozens of books accompanying me on my travels without risking a huge airport baggage charge or a complete spinal breakdown.

Anyway, back to my story … one day at a family gathering recently, I rashly admitted that I was thinking of investing in a Kindle … maybe … some day … soonish perhaps. Ears pricked. Eyes brightened. Number One Son (who’s a big fan) grabbed the iron while it was about 90 degrees and said he’d buy me one for my birthday and Christmas gift.

Wowwa. Steady on. I need to be sure … It’d be a waste of good money if …

Quick as a flash he boomerangs back: Borrow mine to see how you get on.

My aging brain couldn’t think of a single reason why not … unless … surely, he’d be bereft without it?

A KindleNext thing I know I’m sitting here with a Kindle in my hands. And I’m shamefacedly clawing back all my reservations and provisos and caveats. Absolutely loving the experience.

Fair does, my son did give the experiment a sporting chance – he downloaded two books high on my wish-list into the machine: Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult which is about surrogate pregnancy, and Annabel by Kathleen Winter which centres around a kiddie with ambiguous gender issues. Very much my bag. But even so. I expected a less than enjoyable experience. Instead I’ve been forced to eat a giant slice of humble pie and furthermore, I’ve become an actively zealous new convert.

I love that the text is so clear. I love the way that the page is always totally flat, no twisting to see the inside margins or fearing breaking the spine. And the compactness that slips in a bag or pocket so easily. And the automatic switch off if you’re inactive for any length of time. No worries about weight or damage or … well, anything.

Just so that I don’t forget my first impressions, however, I should note a couple of minor quibbles. It’s not so easy to check where the next break in text comes, just to see if I’ve got time to finish this section before my bus is due; you can’t just stick a finger in and flick real pages. There’s no back cover to give you a hook into the story, either. Or lovely appealing covers like these hard copy versions. And I’m not sure how you’d go about referencing a quote when the page numbers aren’t shown. But, like I say, small fry stuff in the big scheme of things.

So I’m a reformed character. Secretly I’m chanting, Roll on my birthday next month! And my next holiday in the sun. Let me see, just how many books will I take?

Yes, I salute you, Michael Hart.

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