A week or so ago, I read with distinct amusement the commentary of two Twitter friends who were attending the Malcolm Gladwell lecture at Book Expo America. Each was live tweeting the event, and in verbose, manic style, their tweets filling my feed to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. But what made things so fascinating was that their tweets were fundamentally, diametrically opposed–one gladly worshipped at the altar of all things Gladwell; the other decried him as a charlatan Pied Pipering his unquestioning listeners down a rabbit hole of rubbish–and yet, though they were in the same space, and even reporting using the same hashtag, they weren’t engaging with each other in the least.
I mentioned this to my husband, who suggested that the two had probably blocked each other. That though they might well be sitting side by side in the auditorium, they were so ensconced in their personal ideological silos that they had no intention of letting someone else breach those walls. But it seemed so strange, I responded, pointing out that each was a highly articulate, thoughtful individual who had something to bring to the debate, and that the very fact that they were attending the same event, regardless of their personal perspectives about what was being said, showed that they clearly had some aligned interests and concerns. If only Twitter could prepare a graph or a diagram showing who had blocked each other, said my husband. Doing so would be an excellent way of identifying both communication and information breakdowns: an ideological schism over which information, ideas and debate had no means of passing.
These sorts of divisions are nothing new, and are one of the key themes of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which looks at both the physical and social divide between those of the landowning, educated classes and those of a working-class background. The novel traces the journey of Margaret Hale as she moves from the well-to-do, buffered south to the industrial town of Milton in the north, a place currently unsettled by conflict over workers’ rights and the relatively new development of the entrepreneurial middle class. Margaret’s initial ignorance regarding the Milton context is such that she is thrown into circumstances that are utterly alien to her. (Upon arriving, she despairs for her situation: “If she had known how long it would be before the brightness [either internal or external] came, her heart would have sunk low down…”) Her slow ingratiation into Milton society comes in a gradual, iterative manner, with Margaret first needing to acknowledge the existence of the place and its people, and then begin to humanise and empathise with her new peers.
“Your lives and your welfare are so constantly and intimately interwoven,” she argues at one point, highlighting the connectedness of both worker and employer, “God has made us so that we must be mutually dependent. We may ignore our own dependence, or refuse to acknowledge that others depend upon us in more respects than the payment of weekly wages; but the thing must be, nevertheless. Neither you nor any other master can help yourselves. The most proudly independent man depends on those around him for their insensible influence on his character–his life.” And the same is true of ideas: aligning oneself only with those whose beliefs are our own is deeply problematic and can only represent an ideological narrowing.
As the book progresses, Margaret becomes quite demonstrative in her proclamations of equality and empathy, and we see her striving to play the role of cultural anthropologist, seeking to understand her new circumstances. But the inciting event behind her engagement is obvious: her coming into contact with this place, these people, these ideas in the first place. Had she and her family remained in their isolated social and ideological silo in the south, Margaret would have remained entirely ignorant of life in Milton, and would have found herself surrounded only by those whose ideas, goals, and outlooks she shared–the possible exception being her father, whose defection from the church signifies a potential opportunity for an ideological clash and therefore a resultant, accompanying growth.
“There might be toilers and moilers there in London” (where Margaret lived at one point) “but she never saw them; the very servants lived in an underground world of their own, of which she knew neither the hopes nor the fears; they only seemed to start into existence when some want or whim of their master or mistress needed them.”
And yet, while Margaret slowly begins to make her way across a variety of social, class, and linguistic borders, others around her refuse to do so. (“And if I must live in a factory town, I must speak factory language when I want it. Why, mamma, I could astonish you with a great many words you’ve never heard in your life.”) Her mother, for example, is intent upon maintaining the wall between her erstwhile life and her new one, and upon arriving in Milton immediately falls ill, becoming housebound and isolated. Her determined disconnection from all that Milton represents could be argued to be a contributing factor to her eventual demise, and one that I’d argue is as much an ideological or existential death as a physical one. Ideas are what make us human, after all, and by refusing to engage with a differing point of view or way of living, Margaret’s mother is slowly asphyxiating her intellectual self. It’s hard not to see this as Gaskell’s warning about the dangers of close-mindedness and deliberate ignorance. Without sustained intellectual debate, without being subjected to ideas and situations that frustrate us, that are abhorrent to us, that make us uncomfortable, or that make us feel anything other than warm and fuzzy, we risk severing ourselves from the wider context of reality.
“Mr Thornton is coming to drink tea with us tonight,” says Mr Hale, “and he is as proud of Milton as you of Oxford. You two must try and make each other a little more liberal-minded.” “I don’t want to be more liberal-minded, thank you,” said Mr Bell.
Perhaps what bothers me most about the ideological schisms we see today, the conversational black-outs that occur thanks to blocking and other siloed forms of information access/restriction, is that they are far more deliberate than in the time when Gaskell was writing. Where Gaskell’s characters could be forgiven their ignorance in many instances due to their physical isolation and their relative inability to obtain information, today we’re far more deliberately choosing to ignore people whose mindsets or beliefs clash with ours. Even worse is the idea of blocking someone: if you ignore someone you are at least aware of their behaviour or their presence; by blocking that individual, you preclude that entirely. Yes, the sheer degree of connectedness of our world means that it can be immensely tiring to constantly engage with differing ideologies or beliefs, but we owe it to ourselves and to our intellectual richness not to cut ourselves off from these viewpoints, to at least try to consider the perspectives of others–and the people who hold those perspectives.
“Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm.”(less)
Of late it seems that I am being haunted by intertextuality. Each book that I pick up seems to slot into the vast Connect Four board of hermeneutics that is my reading life, and with everything I read, I find my to-read list growing ever broader and ever deeper.
I seem to be at a stage in my reading where so many unknown unknowns are swiftly becoming known unknowns. It’s a tantalising, maddening point to reach, and my reading has slowed dramatically as I find myself digging not just more deeply into individual works, but in my attempts to see how they connect to each other.
While reading Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which I read just after Chaim Potok’s In the Beginning, I happened across an article on breath and breathing by Sebastian Normandin that somehow tied the concepts in the two books together for me.
All three texts evoke in me a mental image of a pendulum, an image that I think is quite aptly applied to where I find myself in my own reading and writing and desire for understanding.
In Sisyphus’s endlessly repeating task, as in breathing, as in the quest for knowledge, there is a precipice, a turning point, that must be negotiated. There is the point where Sisyphus’s boulder reaches its gravitational apogee, at which it will begin to descend again; there is also the point where Sisyphus pauses, reflects, then commits to beginning his task anew. The same sequence occurs with each breath that we take.
But each instance can never be the exact same beginning as the last one. You might argue that all beginnings are turning points, and all turning points are beginnings. Each change, each realisation, each opportunity for growth involves seeing the boulder tumble back down, ready to be pushed up again to that cruelly insurmountable precipice.
In the Beginning is filled with these moments. A lyrical, formidable bildungsroman, it’s many things, but for me it’s most saliently a celebration of the courage involved in not just recognising a new branch in the ever unspooling fractal of one’s intellectual life, but in deciding to take this branch.
It’s a celebration of curiosity, of the sometimes destructive human thirst for knowledge and understanding, of the breath-stealing moment that is standing at that edge and wondering just where the pendulum will take you.
“All beginnings are hard,” writes narrator David. “Especially a beginning that you make by yourself. That’s the hardest beginning of all.”
Indeed, David’s battle is one that bears many similarities to that of Sisyphus–and Camus would surely quirk an eyebrow at the absurdity (in the Camus sense) of a young Jewish boy devoting a life to biblical study. It’s an absurdity that Potok acknowledges in the narrative through the unanticipated precipices that he throws David’s way:
“I have accidents all the time. I killed a canary and a dog by accident. And I fall and hurt myself. And I almost started a fire once in our kitchen. And I almost fell out of my window…Every night I dream about having accidents…sometimes I think there’s something wrong with me.”
But like Sisyphus, David persists despite the many and myriad obstacles in his way. When he muses: ”when you didn’t expect something to happen and it happened, that was also an accident…” it’s hard not to think about this in terms of unknowns and turning points. Accidents are, obviously, an outcome of sorts, and therefore represent a turning point; a possibility for a new beginning or that moment whereupon a Sisyphean hero takes that breath and makes a decision to continue.
By persisting in his search for knowledge in the face of these accidents, David is constantly reasserting his humanity. It’s those who don’t struggle, who don’t seek those turning points who slip away into nothingness, into intellectual and spiritual stagnation:
“What’s a sacred heart?” David asks at one point, to which he receives the response: ”I don’t know. I don’t interest myself in such matters.”
Apathy requires disengagement, a stepping away from involvement. It’s the safe route, but what’s the point of it? Sisyphus might, after all, simply step to one side and let his boulder slip away and come to rest. But then what? If he did so, who would he be? What would be his purpose? What would he have achieved but that single event?
“Anyone who knows very clearly what he’s doing with his life will have people who dislike him,” David is told. Perhaps what is meant here is not dislike so much as lack of understanding, of appreciation.
I think that the reason that intellectual journeys are so challenging to appreciate and comprehend is their lack of resolution, of a clear outcome. Learning is a process, and it’s a strange, cyclical, self-referential one, much like Sisyphus’s lifelong task. It is its own reward.
During a tango workshop a few weeks ago, my teacher mentioned that everything comes back to basics, that it’s all about the walk. Every time she takes a step, she’s achieving something: she’s bringing a new perspective, or experience, or simple reaffirmation to this most basic element of dancing. It’s an ongoing effort to refine, to improve, to seek a change.
Camus and Potok have something fundamental in common. Camus tells us to imagine Sisyphus happy, and perhaps he has a point. The Sisyphean existence isn’t devoid of meaning. In fact, it’s about finding meaning.
As David’s teacher puts it:
“A shallow mind is a sin against God. A man who does not struggle is a fool.”
It’s a surprising achievement to realise just how much you don’t know, and it’s kind of exhilarating to stand there with a boulder, take a deep breath, and seek one of many new beginnings.
As a reader, I’m a very, very happy Sisyphus.(less)
Over the course of my last few reviews I've been considering the role of the author as narrator and as character, and the degree to which authorial insertion is, to the mind of the reader, assumed to be inalienable. In large part this has been inspired by the narrator character--who is, perhaps, the author himself--in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and his/her thoughts regarding the use of characters as an author's possible selves.
The idea has continued to haunt me, and in my reading recently I've been pondering the inextricability of the author and their work. I do think that there's a winking fallaciousness to Kundera's statement, and it's to do with the slippery slope and extrapolation that's inherent in the idea of possibility. There are, obviously, degrees of remoteness involved in all of this. An author might create a character who is in every way the author's image (or at least as near as possible--the character can never be the author, but only ever a facsimile of the author). This would be an example of a close possible self. Of course, an author might create someone who is their polar opposite, but for all this dichotomy, this character would still remain a possible self, merely a distant one. After all, it's impossible to write without using oneself as a reference.
However, I do think that there is a tendency for readers, unless told otherwise, to see an author's characters as close possible selves. Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, which I'm presently reading, says, "though I have seen the same actor a hundred times, I shall not for that reason know him any better personally. Yet if I add up the heroes he has personified and if I say that I know him a little better at the hundredth character counted off, this will be felt to contain an element of truth." I think that this is particularly true of narrator characters. (For an example of this, you need only see my lack of certainty above regarding the identity of the narrator character in the Kundera.)
Where, of course, this conflation of author and character becomes a problem is when the character exhibits morally questionable traits.
I read with interest some months ago an interview with Junot Diaz regarding his writing of a misogynistic character in such a way that he as an author would not be seen as tacitly condoning the character's sexism, but that would not signpost his own beliefs in such a way that it would break into the narrative:
"If it's too brutal and too obvious then it becomes allegorical, becomes a parable, becomes kind of a moral tale. You want to make it subtle enough so that there are arguments like this....For kind of sophisticated art I'm interested in the larger structural rebuke has to be so subtle that it has to be distributed at an almost sub-atomic level. Otherwise, you fall into the kind of preachy, moralistic fable that I don't think makes for good literature."
This line of moral ambiguity is one along which Nabokov carefully treads in his masterpiece Lolita, and throughout the book we see a careful distancing of author, narrator, and even character in order to achieve a separation of author and work. That the novel is bookended by an explanatory, absolving foreword from a fictional character posing as the author, and an afterword by Nabokov himself speaks volumes; there is also further distance created in my edition (The Everyman's Library edition) by the inclusion of a lengthy introductory essay. We see an additional obscuring of identity and therefore of self by the fact that Humbert is itself a pseudonym, as is the surname "Haze", given to Lolita and her family. These structural elements are probably the most overt attempts at separating the author and work, but Lolita is rife with them.
Take, for example, the book's self-consciously literary approach, with its three-act structure and its narrative artifice. The various deaths and disappearances of Humbert's lovers feel deliberate and unnatural, carefully shoehorned into the plot to create a sense of the created rather than the naturally arising. Characters and situations appear as obstacles or illustrative points less than they do organic explorations of real life, the effect resulting in a sort of moral cushioning, particularly when we consider the book as being framed within the context of the introductory foreword from a "John Ray Jr, PhD", with its placatory remarks about the text being a "lesson" or a "warning".
Beyond the higher level structural elements, however, we have those occurring at the character and prose level, and it's here that Nabokov plies his authorial genius, driving a stunningly wrought sentence-level wedge between the writer and the written. The book hums with a note of critique, with what feels like a misalignment between Humbert's predatory waywardness and the author's own moral code.Even at his most sincere, Humbert's account reads with a dissonance, with a careening madness that positions him as pitiable and unhinged, an egocentric individual whose myopic obsession transforms him into a figure to be mocked, one who is incapable of being taken seriously. He is a pathetic figure, a man who is obsolete, lost in a fusty history and a tumult of justification and self-deception, scarcely capable of existing in the present day. With his old-fashioned mannerisms and language, he is disconnected from reality, and approaches the world in a strangely cerebral, removed manner. This is characterisation by careful design: we are warned, cleverly, by a subtle authorial hand, against connecting with him.
And of course, finally, there's the elegant de-eroticisation of Humbert's relationship with Lolita, and of Lolita herself. There's something grotesque and impersonal about Humbert's obsession with Lolita: rather than being the actual object of his desire, she is simply a sort of sexual golem upon whom he applies a general sense of deviancy. His descriptions of her are ugly and garish: "her toenails showed remnants of cherry-red polish and there was a bit of adhesive tape across her big toe", he writes early on, and these descriptions grow no more beautiful over time--"monkeyish" seems to be his most commonly tapped adjective. There's a sense of appalling ugliness and baseness applied not just to Lolita, but to Humbert's courtship of her, and it's hard not to assume a degree of approbation emanating from Nabokov's pen throughout. This, to me, at least, is perhaps most evident in the searingly illusive, deeply figurative prose, a descriptive sleight of hand that misdirects the reader's eye away from the flinching carnality of the narrative and instead to the breathtaking richness of language.
All too aware of the danger of author-narrator conflation, Nabokov seems to be seeking solace in the diffuse wadding of the poetic, allowing himself to drift in the layered ambiguity surrounding the possible self, creating narrative buffers that prevent him from plunging headlong into the fraught waters of the character-as-self, and allowing him to tell the story that needs to be told. All characters may be linked back to their creator, but, Lolita reminds us, it is dangerous to assume that all characters are a close possible self.(less)
When reading PG Wodehouse's Love Among the Chickens recently I was struck by the narrator's curiosity regarding "to what extent the work of authors is influenced by their private affairs." These words resonated with me as they were the third time in as many books that I'd come across a similar sentiment; the other books being Nabokov's Lolita and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, both of which are transcendent works that involve literary types and themes in a way that's mesmerisingly recursive.
In her introductory essay to I Capture the Castle (included in the Folio Society edition), Valerie Grove describes the torment experienced by Smith in the writing of the novel:
"She kept a 100,000-word notebook on her progress, which reveals that it almost drove her to a breakdown. She was so anxious that her first novel should be a success after the long years of frustration that she spent two years on rewriting, when every line of dialogue reverberated in her head, interrupting her sleep, causing her to wake each day with a visceral dread, her mind nagged with doubt, her brain throbbing. She felt she was disintegrating, mentally and physically...endlessly, she noted her anxieties over whether the characters worked: 'never, never have I suffered so over any piece of work. Sometimes I would spend two hours without getting one short paragraph of revision right. And always I was dogged by the fear that my creative powers were fading for good, that I should never be able to write anything else in the future.'"
The novel, incidentally, reads in an astonishingly effortless manner, its breezy, mirthful prose belying none of the creative anguish experienced by Smith. Where this conflict does break through to the surface is in the contrast of the characters of narrator Cassandra and her father, the reclusive and acclaimed author James Mortmain. Cassandra's efforts to "capture the castle" are almost hypergraphic: her narration occurs in what is close enough to real time, brimming with quick and easy observation and unselfconscious diarisation. She has mastered, she tells us, the art of "speed writing".
In contrast, her father is crippled by what is described as writer's block, but which seems attributable instead to the overwhelming pressure he faces in writing a sophomore volume capable of living up to, or surpassing, his debut Jacob Wrestling. "It's time that this legend that I'm a writer ceased," he snaps at his daughter at one point. And when asked by a visitor when a follow-up might be expected--this some years after the book's publication--he responds, deflated, shoulders sagging, with a breathed, "never".
His interrogator quickly seeks to atone for his misstep with the following:
"Certain unique books seem to be without forerunners or successors as far as their authors are concerned. Even though they may profoundly influence the work of other writers, for their creator they're complete, not leading anywhere... The originators among writers--perhaps, in a sense, the only true creators--dip deep and bring up one perfect work; complete, not a link in a chain. Later, they dip again--for something as unique. God may have created other worlds, but he obviously didn't go on adding to this one."
This is certainly the case for Cassandra's father, whose slowly transpiring follow-up effort involves a bizarre mish-mash of exploratory elements--everything from nonsensical crossword puzzles to fishbone-inspired word art. It's the creative equivalent of the identity binary found in siblings: the only way to avoid comparison with a brother or sister is to position oneself in an utterly oppositional manner. And the author whose ouvre is utterly divergent is safer, in a way, than the author who works down a kind of bibliographic train-line. It's easier to separate the author and work, after all, if the work is all manner of things.
It's hard not to draw the kind of parallel suggested by Wodehouse here: the inevitable link between the author and the authored. After all, as Milan Kundera suggests, aren't all characters simply an author exploring his or her possible selves? ("But some characters in books are very real," writes Cassandra.) But this brings with it an obvious issue, as alluded to above: the conflation of the author and the author's work, and the resulting critique not only of the work, but of the individual. This seems to be at the heart of James Mortmain's writer's block, and it's an idea that Smith looks at with deep-seated irony and cynicism. There's a point where Mortmain is said to have "changed his mind about it--he now thinks he did mean all the things the critic says he did," and it's hard not to read this as a cynical capitulation, particularly when we hear of the subject of his second book.
Although plot-wise it comprises only a small element of the book, the battle of the author and author's creation (and indeed the re-creation of that creation by the reading public) is immensely palpable throughout I Capture the Castle, and despite Mortmain's sardonic note about the interpretive liberties of critics, it's hard not to concede Wodehouse's point about the inevitable interrelation of art and life. "To what extent is the work of authors influenced by their private affairs?" he asks; to which we can respond to as great an extent as the reader wishes it to be so...(less)
Love Among the Chickens is my first foray into the work of Wodehouse; and as a fairly early work, it's one of Wodehouse's first forays into Wodehouse as well. A deliciously written farcical novel, it brings together the seemingly dissimilar worlds of writing and chicken farming—which prove to have a lot more in common than one might first imagine, and make for a rather delightful spot of Venn diagramming.
Our narrator is middling novelist Jeremy Garnet, a fellow who's largely along for the ride as his zany, onomastically dense friend Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge--a would-be entrepreneur of the type who would, today, be mashing together a bunch of vaguely tech-related words and heading off to Silicon Valley to prise hundreds of millions of start-up dollars out of the hands of a bunch of strangers--decides that a chicken farm is a perfectly infallible business.
After all, those debates about chickens and eggs and their circularly reduplicative tendencies must have some basis.
(If you're after a brief insight into the character of Ukridge, this little snippet might help: “He...made use of [the appellation “Old Horse”] while interviewing the parents of new pupils, and the latter had gone away, as a result, with a feeling that this must be either the easy manner of Genius or due to alcohol, and hoping for the best...” I have an investment banker cousin to whom this description could just as easily apply, but that's by the by...)
Needless to say, everything goes terribly, remarkably, wrong, with Ukridge opting for some rather inspired but inadvisable business practices regarding the incubation of chickens and lines of credit, and all manner of silliness ensues. This is interwoven with Garnet's own narrative of personal discovery, and the two plot lines mirror each other in an intriguing (and highly amusing) way.
Garnet, though writing of Ukridge's merry megalomania, is himself as terribly (and unjustifiably!) guilty of extreme hubris. Upon meeting the young Phyllis, who happens to be reading the latest of his novels, he muses: “That a girl should look as pretty as that and at the same time have the rare intelligence to read Me...well, it seemed an almost superhuman combination of the excellencies.”
The expectation that the world should want whatever it is that Garnet has to offer is not so far from Ukridge's own expectations, and Wodehouse has a wink-nudge moment with this momentarily, where he allows Phyllis to critique Garnet's work:
“Molly McEachern gave it to me when I left the Abbey," says Phyllis of Garnet's book. "She keeps a shelf of books for her guests when they are going away. Books that she considers rubbish, and doesn't want, you know...”
(To which Garnet, like any self-respecting author, professes to "hate Miss McEarchern without further evidence.")
Interestingly, the fledgling relationship between Phyllis and Garnet seems to have copped some flack over the years: Garnet attends to his interest in Phyllis through various bizarre methods, many of which are flat-out stalkerish--hiding in hedges; faux-drowning the poor girl's father, you know, minor things like that. But I think there's some deliberate tongue-in-cheek recursion going on here. After all, when we meet Phyllis, she muses:
“I wonder who Jeremy Garnet is...I've never heard of him before. I imagine him rather an old young man, probably with an eyeglass and conceited. And I should think he didn't know many girls. At least if he thinks Pamela an ordinary sort of girl. She's a cr-r-eature...”
Given this, it only makes sense that not only is Phyllis a "creature" herself, but that Garnet is absurdly rambunctious in his wooing of her.
This sort of art-meets-life-meets-art chicken-and-egg thing is rife throughout the book, much of which is actually a meditation on writing itself, and it's hard not to have a chuckle at the juxtaposition of what is often seen as a scholarly, high-brow pursuit with the uproarious shenanigans of the unapologetically insouciant Ukridge and his harem of chickens (with the standout feathered lass being “the disagreeable, sardonic-looking bird which Ukridge, on the strength of an alleged similarity of profile to his wife's nearest relative, had christened Aunt Elizabeth. A Bolshevist hen, always at the bottom of any disturbance in the fowl-run, a bird which ate its head off daily at our expense and bit the hands which fed it by resolutely declining to lay a single egg...”).
Not to mention the deep irony evident in statements such as the following, from Garnet:
“It would be interesting to know to what extent the work of authors is influenced by their private affairs. If life is flowing smoothly, are the novels they write in that period of content coloured with optimism? And if things are running cross-wise, do they work of the resultant gloom on their faithful public?...If Maxim Gorky were invited to lunch by Trotsky, to meet Lenin, would he sit down and dash off a trifle in the vein of Stephen Leacock? Probably the eminent have the power of detaching their writing self from their living, work-a-day self; but, for my own part, the frame of mind in which I now found myself had a disastrous effect on what my novel was to be. I had designed it as a light comedy effort...but now great slabs of gloom began to work themselves into the scheme of it...”
Apparently light comedy is indeed in the eye of the beholder...
And then there's this one, which is witty enough in its own right, but which is given added resonance when we think of Ukridge's endlessly trotted out (pardon the pun) "Old Horse" and his myriad upper-class colloquialisms:
“I may mention here that I do not propose to inflict dialect upon the reader. If he has borne with my narrative thus far, I look on him as a friend and feel that he deserves consideration. I may not have brought out the fact with sufficient emphasis in the foregoing pages, but nevertheless I protest that I have a conscience...”
But apropos of nothing, perhaps what delighted me most of all about the book was this little metaphysical reference, which was fiercley apt given my recent reading of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which looks at the same idea, only drawing the opposite conclusion:
“Look at the thing from the standpoint of the philosopher, old horse,” urged Ukridge, splashing after him. “The fact that the rescue was arranged oughtn't to matter. I mean to say, you didn't know it at the time, so, relatively, it was not, and you were genuinely saved from a watery grave and all that sort of thing.”
Oh, Ukridge. If we're to get philosophical, you've really opted for lightness over weight, haven't you?
What happens but once might as well not have happened at all…
The story that I am asked to tell most often is how I met my husband, a story that is notable for the coincidence that it involves. We met, of course, in two different venues in a single night. Without exception, people seem to see this story as something involving fate.
But what if we’d met only once?
If I’m to be honest, this is a question that has haunted me for years now, and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, already widely regarded as a modern classic, has resulted in my exploring the idea a good deal further.
Like the circumstances behind how I met my own husband, the meeting between key characters Tomas and Tereza is one steeped in chance and coincidence. Although each of these chance events on their own is meaningless and trivial enough—the repetition of certain numbers, situational happenstance—when confronted with them as a series, it’s almost impossible not to apply some sort of narrative to them, seeing them as interrelated and inter-operative.
And with narrative, of course, comes meaning…and responsibility. Tereza sees the combination of chance events behind her meeting with Tomas as having some sort of essential resonance, enough that she not only predicates an entire relationship on these coincidences, but endures Tomas’s philandering in large part because she feels a sort of existential indebtedness to their relationship because of the circumstances of their meeting.
For Tereza this narrative is mostly unquestionable, but Tomas rails against it, embarking on a prodigious array of fleeting sexual encounters as though to prove that chance meetings are everywhere—and may result in all manner of possible outcomes.
But even Tomas concedes in some ways to the push and shove of fate, most demonstrably when he writes a letter to a newspaper regarding the need to accept personal responsibility for the outcomes of one’s actions, even if one doesn’t know the outcome of those actions. There is a second incident where Thomas bows—ostensibly—to fate: when he follows Tereza back to Prague, something that he claims is beyond his control (Es muss sein!, he cries. It must be so!)
And yet, despite this act in accordance with what he seems to believe is the hand of fate, Tomas conceives of his love life not in terms of Es muss sein, but rather Es konnte auch anders sein (It could just as well be otherwise).
But so too, I think, does Tereza. After all, she sees her relationship with Tomas as having arisen from a series of coincidences (and surely this is partly the motivation behind her decision to see the two of them move to the countryside, thus narrowing the range of possible “other” experiences?). The difference seems to be Tereza searches for positive affirmation of this, while Tomas searches for negative affirmation: that is, that Tereza sees their relationship validated by the things that have happened, and Thomas by the things that might have but have not happened.
Of a related note is the idea of “possible selves”, which Kundera examines at length—at one point breaking the fourth wall in order to posit that all of a novelist’s characters are necessarily hypothetical experiential alternatives.
Given this line of thought I can’t help but wonder whether Tomas’s womanising is his own way of exploring his own possible selves in a manner that is free from responsibility or culpability. After all, he argues the importance of taking responsibility of one’s own actions, and yet this becomes a moot point if we are to return to the idea of einmal ist keinmal. (Our narrator disagrees, however, arguing that things that happen just once can have resonance by the very virtue of their uniqueness.)
I think what strikes me most in all of this is the arbitrariness in the way that we apply the ideas of chance, fate and narrative. The applicability of any and all of these is up to individual interpretation—and possibly an imposed collective interpretation—and surely any narrative that is applied is influenced not only by the events of the time as they occur, but also those that follow.
For example, meeting my future husband twice in one night tends to invite narrative applications of “fate”, but would the same be true if we’d broken up shortly after, or if he’d turned out to be a crazed serial killer? Similarly, what would the interpretations be if we’d only met once?
And finally, what if we apply Tomas’s notion of es konnte auch anders sein?
Personally, I think that although it’s possible to consider this on a hypothetical level, it’s impossible to apply as much weight or import to something that might have happened as it is to something that actually has happened.
But then, maybe I’m just applying a narrative of my own…(less)
I picked up Susan Hill’s A Change for the Better from the shelves of the Little Library, a literary free-for-all thanks to which I’ve stumbled across all manner of elderly, fusty little books. The sorts of books that are faded to a jaundiced hue, their pages seeking respite from the glue of their bindings, their text cramped and tiny, set, in variably in Linotype Pilgrim.
It’s perhaps fitting that I chanced upon this sagging, menopausal book, giving it an opportunity to embark on an excursion away from its familiar surroundings for a while, because the volume deals in large part with the encroaching invisibility and narrowing of opportunity that comes with middle-age. That, and the tyranny of inescapable familial relationships–it’s probably unsurprising that overall it’s quite an intimidating read.
When I say intimidating, I don’t mean that it’s a big or a grand volume, but rather that because reading it is comparable to being stuck in a room alone with some hideous older relation for whom you, despite yourself, hold a sort of grudging respect. It’s not an enjoyable read at all (with the possible exception of the very end, where my inner schadenfreudian had a good old workout), but it’s biting and wicked and dreadfully incisive.
The novel follows three main threads, which are set up in such a way that they are thematically interlinked and contrastable, and to devastating effect. Probably most integral is the mother-daughter duo Deirdre Fount and Mrs Oddicott, who work together in stiflingly close quarters, their resentment towards each other and their disdain for each other’s life choices barely contained. Mrs Oddicott is a cruel bully who channels her own sense of failure and loneliness into endless passive-aggressive bullying, cutting the already cowed Deirdre down whenever possible in order to keep her at close quarters. Deirdre, meanwhile, is bit by bit attempting to break away from her mother’s clutches. She fears (and fair enough!) becoming her mother, and has begun seeking to improve her already ailing relationship with her young son James–who is on the cusp of adolescence and is himself trying to forge his own identity.
Things are further complicated by the reappearance of Deirdre’s womanising ex-husband and his vague efforts to establish some sort of relationship with James, and also by the appearance of the Carpenters, an embattled husband and wife team whose overtures towards Deirdre only further poison things between Deirdre and her mother. The dynamics between the Carpenters are not unlike those between Deirdre and Mrs Oddicott: snideness, intransigence and thanklessness colour their every interaction.
Everyone in this book, with the possible exception of James’s music teacher, is brutal beyond belief, and often knowingly so. The pettiness and mean-spiritedness is breathtaking, but Hill’s ability to get into her characters’ minds is such that we can almost forgive them their derelictions. I think it’s that there are so many layers created here, and beneath the strychnine-laced buttercream icing of these individuals is a pervasive sense of loneliness, desperation and fear.
It’s the classic balancing of the concepts of positive and negative face: wanting to be appreciated and shown attention while also wanting to be left to one’s own devices. But it’s the way that the characters in this book go about this that’s so cruel and startling. They’re manipulative and petty to a grimace-inducing degree, and yet the others in their relationship binaries are unable to escape their orbit.
(I’m presently searching through the book for an illustrative quote, but my blood’s boiling at every interaction!)
Here’s a choice snippet between Deirdre and her mother, after Deirdre has returned from going up the street to post a letter:
“Ah, there is James’s flute case – so he has come home?’ … Mrs Oddicott lifted the lid of a saucepan and peered inside. “He is gone out,” she said shortly. “Out? Out where? He did not tell me of any plan he had to go out again.” “And is that not only to be expected? He is taking after you in that respect, surely?” “Mother, do not be ridiculous. Where has he gone?” “Now I suppose I am to be blamed for giving permission. But what else was I supposed to do? You were not here, and I made it very clear that I was no longer thought to be responsible for him, I said all that there was to say on that score. James knows all that has happened.”
This continues over several pages, with Mrs Oddicott slowly circling around her daughter, her tongue a punitive force that makes the cat o’ nine tails look like an appealing option. But it’s not only Mrs Oddicott who punishes Deirdre: broader social forces conspire against her. For me, one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the book was this one, where Deirdre decides to venture out for some personal time:
“Good evening,” Mrs Carmichael,” said Deirdre Fount, walking confidently past, “What a cold evening! So pleasant beside the fire!” I shall do this again some day, she thought, I have enjoyed my little treat, my rest and my glass of sherry, a quiet time to order my thoughts, it has all done me a great deal of good. Mrs Carmichael sat reading her library book and waiting for a friend, and when the friend arrived she said at once to her, “Poor Mrs Fount has just been in here, sitting alone over a glass of sherry.”
Poor Deirdre’s efforts to at long last step out from beneath the foul umbra of her mother are constructed entirely differently from the outside, applying to her a narrative that is not at all how she saw the turn of events. It’s a sad look at the degree of agency we really do have over our own lives, and how others can so readily influence the way that we live–whether we are aware of it or not.(less)
I purchased Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life some years ago on the strength of her book Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, which I remember being a tremendous read. I wonder now whether I’d feel the same way upon embarking on a re-read, as I’m deeply ambivalent about My Happy Life, a book that’s so painfully, mawkishly self-conscious that it’s hard not to look upon it with distaste.
Our unnamed narrator is a (possibly) mentally disabled young woman who has been left, forgotten, in an abandoned mental institution; in the weeks that have passed since she has been left behind in this existential purgatory, she has been quietly subsisting on tap water and on the memories of her life up until this point. To an outsider, it is not a happy life, but rather an unrelenting march of abuse, neglect and exploitation. Found as an infant in a cardboard box, our narrator’s transient, in-between life continues with a slew of foster homes and abusive relationships that follow on from each other like the links of a brutal paper chain. And yet, our narrator sees the world through a lens of innocence and love: she sees beauty in the ugliest of things, is able to scratch out an iota of happiness from the darkest, most desultory thing.
Millet seems to be aiming for a sense of grace in the face of adversity, an inversion of the more usual approach of finding a gloominess and angst in the seemingly beautiful and virtuous. But the approach taken here is so extreme and affected that it’s difficult to stomach. Whether the overweening positivity is a coping mechanism or a genuine inability to grasp the bad in the world it just rings false. I found myself unable to reconcile the utterly guileless, ostensibly intellectually disabled nature of the narrator with the lyrical prose, and I couldn’t help but feel that the book felt overwritten and trite.
Take, for example, sentences like:
“The man of the house went on numerous trips and the woman of the house, who went and bought herself a new pedigree Pekinese, called Oscar Too on a tag that hung around his neck, also began to drink a vast array of fine intoxicants.”
“I gave up my bundle of possessions to the woman at the desk and was then led down a hallway. Its walls were close and seemed to have been washed in blue solutions of uncommon purity, which smelled very strong so that my eyes became teary. And the floor too had been stepped in blue solutions, so that they could not help but be breathed in with the oxygen.”
Even the narrator’s habitual, painfully understated response of “excuse me” to any of the horrors done to her never quite feels right; it sits uncomfortably within the narrative, a too polite, too measured, too neat reaction. In fact, this was my problem with the book as a whole. It reads like an extended literary affectation, the pointed unemotionality of it constantly setting my teeth on edge, the overwrought, over-polished prose an uncomfortably lingering guest casting a pall of literary construction over the book.
Ordinarily I love an unreliable narrator, but the conceit here doesn’t quite come off. Millet is a superb writer, but this book is a distinctly awkward intersection between story and storyteller, and on the whole it didn’t work for me.(less)
Venice is the only place in Italy I’ve been to–unless the countryside scudding along outside the train window counts–and it’s a city that straddles so many realities. With a foot on land and one in the ocean, it’s physically an in-between city; with its car-less streets and ancient architecture, it’s a place that allows you to forget for periods of time just what year it is.
Venice is also a place of surprises. I remember spending an afternoon browsing the museum above the Piazza San Marco only to step outside to find that the piazza had silently flooded while I had been poring over sketches and garments. I remember waiting patiently, along with a growing crowd of pedestrians, at the foot of a bridge for a local boy to take a photo of another…only to realise that they were deliberately holding us up as part of some simple, beautifully pointed prank. I remember becoming utterly lost in the messy capillaries of the city many times before finally finding the well-worn pedestrian artery that would take me from one end to the other without happening upon the architectural equivalent of a blood clot.
Sadly, while I, having time on my side, always had the option to turn back, things were very different for Ruth Cracknell and her husband Eric. Having arrived in Venice with the expectation of spending a lengthy, languid holiday together, the two find themselves very quickly in a devastating in-between place of their own. Eric suffers from nosebleed that shows no sign of abating; his condition worsens, and he suffers a stroke. What follows is Ruth’s moving, harried journal of attempting to come to terms with the sudden shift in her husband’s health, an account that is a painful mix of personal reflection and clear-minded logistics. Serious illness is difficult enough to navigate in a familiar context–it brings with it demands of time, and emotions, and language–but illness in a foreign city, and especially one like Venice, is an experience of endless unknowns.
Eric is stoic, doge-like throughout the ordeal, as Ruth and the others attempt to do what is necessary to stabilise him enough that he can be returned home to Australia. But the journey of the title is twofold: it doesn’t just refer to the escape from Venice, but also the journey that Ruth and Eric and their family face upon their return to Australia, when Eric is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
The following account is tremendously moving, a blend of scrappy, ellipsis-filled journal entries that read almost like gasps for breath between tears, and latterly inserted vignettes that bring with them the quiet ache that comes with time, and the book unfolds as we know it will, a slow, surprisingly beautiful journal of Eric’s last days. Like the city of Venice, it keeps a foot in both past and present, travelling back to the early days of the couple’s relationship and contrasting these with the present.
But unlike Venice, the story of Ruth and Eric slowly emerges from its sense of between-ness, shifting out of the marshy mists and continuing onwards…embarking, perhaps, with the guiding rudder of Ruth’s good-natured, warm, prose, across the sparkling sea…(less)
Six years ago I was out at a bar with a girlfriend. I was there under the guise of being her lesbian partner, a roadblock against the advances of another girl my friend had unwittingly led on. Unfortunately I didn't play my role especially well, as I couldn't help but take notice of a handsome young man who'd just entered the venue. To make use of a cliche, we locked eyes across the room...and I felt that jolt that I'd always thought was the preserve of romance novels (or buildings with terrible wiring).
Unfortunately, it wasn't long before my friend and I had to make our escape (we had failed quite miserably at pretending to be lovers, and the other girl was, understandably enough, not especially pleased about our shenanigans, but we were young[er] and silly[ier], so do forgive me). I left without speaking to the guy who'd floored me with that glance.
My friend and I winged our way from venue to venue, finally ending up at some scuzzy downstairs bar where we caught up with some other friends. I was making a dash to the bar to dilute the gin in my system with some much-needed water when I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a handsome young man enter the venue. That same handsome young man, as it were.
I am a tremendously lucky person. I invariably happen across dropped coins; the same is true of free events. I win so many prizes and competitions that I'm probably single-handedly putting the entertainment industry out of business. I'm very petite, which means that I can snap up clothing and jewellery bargains. I have never actually had to apply for a job, as employers seem to find me rather than the other way around (do ping me if you need a feature writer, by the way).
Serendipity and happenstance are two enormous forces in my life, so it was apt that I'd been musing about luck and fortune when I came across The Luck Factor in the dusty depths of our shelves (I don't typically venture into the non-fiction sections of our library, but this one had been mis-shelved among the fiction titles). In this slim, upbeat little volume, psychologist Richard Wiseman looks at why some people seem to be luckier than others, and whether unlucky people might be able to improve their luck by incorporating into their lives some of the habits of typically lucky people.
Admittedly, the book suffers from an awkward "workbook" type structure, incorporating a whole bunch of self-assessment forms that I largely skimmed over, but the anecdotal stuff that forms its main argument is quite fascinating. Wiseman interviews habitually lucky and unlucky people about their life experiences, and finds that lucky people tend to be open and friendly, persistent and proactive, tend to listen to their gut instincts, and have a tendency to see the good in the bad.
One of the more interesting points covered in the book is how people respond to bad situations. After all, no one sails through life without any issues at all. Just yesterday, for example, I managed to drop my office pass and keys down the lift shaft. Oops. Fortunately the day before I'd had some extra keys copied; I also checked to see how much it would cost to replace the pass as opposed to have it collected from the lift shaft. The former turned out to be a third of the price. So no, it wasn't a great situation, but it could have been a lot worse. (I could have been that guy who dropped his iPhone down the lift shaft, for example.) And then there was the time that I left my laptop on a bench outside the State Library. Fortunately I'd left a business card inside it, so that the nice person who picked it up was able to contact me so that I could get it back.
Obviously there are areas where I'd like to improve my "luck", and Wiseman does touch on the ways in which this might be achieved. I'm naturally very shy, introverted person, and this isn't something that's conducive to opening up opportunities. But introverts like me now have the wonderful mediator that is social media at their fingertips, and it's far easier now to break the ice with strangers over email, Twitter and so on. So, this past month I've taken Wiseman's "go and meet people!" command to heart, and the results have been a good deal of fun. I've met up with some lovely blogger friends; all sorts of publishing people; some US journalists visiting for the Food and Wine festival; and some brilliant tango dancers from Argentina.
Wiseman's take on the whole "luck" idea is that good fortune is less about the universe aligning in your favour and more about preparation, expectation, and giving things a shot in the first place.
Sometimes, however, it's about recognising missed opportunities and trying to remedy them.
Believe me, there was no way I was going to miss out on speaking to that handsome man at the bar a second time. Oh, and about him? We'll be celebrating our first wedding anniversary tomorrow.
“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news,” begins Stormbreaker, the first in Anthony Horowitz’s bestselling Alex Rider series.
I would definitely concur. The last time someone buzzed me at three in the morning it was my twenty-one-year-old sister-in-law asking to borrow a MacBook cable for someone’s twenty-first speech. Of course, the adventures that followed my own early-morning contact simply involved a bit of sleep-deprived conversation and then some more sleep. There was nothing at all about my uncle having been brutally murdered, his identity being revealed as an MI6 operative, or my being recruited as a young spy to monitor some dodgy wheelings and dealings relating to school computers.
But where life (and sleeping patterns) went quite promptly back to normal for me, the same is not true for Alex, for whom all the above applies. Soon enough, he’s narrowly escaping near-death situations, playing with Go-Go-Gadget devices, and kicking broody chaps out of aeroplanes. For their own good, of course. And then there’s the whole undercover assignment thing where Alex is sent to investigate self-made millionaire Darrius Sayle, whose “computers for all!” philanthropic program seems just a little bit dodgy.
Stormbreaker is a quick and zippy read, but it’s not without its problems. Alex suffers from the everyman-type characterisation issues that plague many heroes in similar series: he’s a fairly flat, bland character who’s really only painted into existence by those around him. He’s given little personality of his own; rather he’s the sum of his skills and gadgets. Where a character in another book might surprise you with an emotional outburst, Alex surprises you with Secret Karate Skills. Or his ability to drive a car. Or his knowledge of jellyfish.
The fact that he’s largely acting alone means also that he’s in charge of McGuyvering himself out of various near-death situations, and the set-up and resolution of these events does become a little samey-samey after the first couple of times. Because there’s no one around for Alex to really engage with, we see very little emotional response from him (ho hum, my uncle’s dead, chaps), and it’s hard to really empathise with him–or feel that he’s ever really in danger. So much of that tension, after all, arises from the way that other characters respond to dangerous situations.
Although there is a reasonably large cast of secondary characters slinking around in the background it’s hard to ignore the pall of stereotyping that’s been cast over them. We have brutal Russian assassins, cruel and humourless Germans, a squat and fat bad guy from Beirut, and two MI6 operatives who fall fairly blatantly along traditional gender lines–the inscrutable, stoic male and the maternal, concerned female (one of three, from memory, females in the whole book). It’s not hard to see that Horowitz is taking his cues from James Bond, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep abreast of social developments, surely.
However, even though I have my qualms about certain elements of the book (I haven’t even touched the plot here, but let’s just say, 14-year-old boy, MI6 and evil via school computers, shall we?), it is overall zingy, action-packed fun, and it would be remiss of me to tear apart the book for being pretty much what it professes to be from the get-go. It’s silly, it’s over the top, and it contains enough action and intrigue that I’m sure there are a bunch of kids out there secretly hoping for their door buzzer to ring in the middle of the night. (less)
I have a friend who's a former chef. The only thing he loathes more than poor-quality coffee is the current trend of amateur food photography.
"Wouldn't you rather enjoy the food that someone's prepared for you, and spend some time hanging out with your friends rather than fiddling around with the filters on Instagram?" he said one day.
This obsessive need to document and share our lives isn't just limited to food, however. Just as our phones have become an extension of our memories as far as contact details, maps and schedules are involved, photo-sharing sites have become the way that we engage with the narratives of our lives. Retrospectively, and with rose-tinted lenses that are no longer just metaphorical.
Rather than experiencing a moment, embracing its temporal ephemerality, letting it shape us in its own subtle way...and then allowing it to slip into memory until dredged up into consciousness by some conversational or olfactory mnemonic, we've become obsessive documentary-makers. But one of the things about being able to outsource the recording of these experiences is that we don't necessarily engage with them with the depth that we might otherwise.
My in-laws are a case in point: after putting together a precarious, overpopulated itinerary, they'll hurtle their way through their trip, sitting back to relax and reflect on the experience only on the plane afterwards, digital cameras at the ready. Oohs and aahs will ensue as they try to piece together their holiday from the photographic artefacts beeping along in a slideshow in their hands.
I'm not sure that these sorts of pictures are each worth a thousand words.
But we're all guilty of this. Digital cameras mean that we don't need to be discerning in what we photograph--every moment, then, is given an equal weight. But not all moments are created equal, and being able to differentiate what ought to be retained, not to mention the way that we choose to document it, is somewhat of an art. One, I can't help but feel, that's fading away with the need to internalise travel directions (I will be forever glad that I'm young enough that thanks to GPS systems whatever part of my brain in charge of this can be put to use doing other things. Coming up with meme extensions, perhaps.)
I can't help but wonder what W Somerset Maugham's On a Chinese Screen might have looked like had he been travelling through China today, rather than a century ago. A slim edition of just under sixty vignettes written during his travels through China in 1919, the book is described not as a novel, but rather as material for a novel. There's not a photograph nor a FourSquare check-in in sight.
Rather, with only one or two exceptions, the book comprises lengthy character sketches of the people, largely western foreigners living in China, Maugham met as he made his way along the Yangtze. It's wry, devastating, and infuriating in turn, and it presents a shame-inducing picture of western attitudes towards the Chinese in the early twentieth century. Though he gives only a couple of pages to each character, slipping from merchant to philosopher to cabinet minister with the staccato induced by a page-turn, a story--or at least, a perspective--arises from these observations, and it's a damning one.
For the most part these are people who disdain, resent or reject China, and who are clinging to their past lives in the west, no matter how distant they might be.
In "My Lady's Parlour" we read of a woman who has turned a temple into a dwelling house, carefully papering over its history with western tapestries and accoutrements. And let's not forget the kitchen: "Here generations of believers had burned their tapers and prayed, some for this temporal benefit or that, some for release from the returning burden of early existence; and this seemed to her the very place for an American stove." There are missionaries who hold nothing but loathing towards the Chinese, and gadabouts who treat the country and its people as some sort of personal carnival.
We read of people bored and disengaged with what they see as a purgatorial stretch in a culture they perceive as so far beneath them that they see it as either a playground or a prison. The tall man in charge of the BAT, for example: "He is bored. It has never occurred to him that he lives a life in which the possibility of adventure is at his doors. He can only recognise it through the printed page; and it needs a story of derring-do in Texas or Nevada, of hairbreadth escape in the South Seas, to stir his blood." Even the Chinese scholar we encounter seems to be undertaking his studies less out of an interest in the culture than he is in satisfying a grudge against a fellow scholar.
And then there are the displaced, the people live between cultures, or long to become a part of a culture they see as being elevated above their own--a snobbery and cultural relativism that becomes only more pronounced against the Chinese backdrop. In "Dinner Parties" we read of a young Russian woman who experiences deep ennui "when you [speak] to her of Tolstoy or Chekov; but [grows] animated when she [talks] of Jack London. 'Why,' she [asks], 'do you English write such silly books about Russia?'. Then there's the First Secretary of the British Legation, who speaks "French more like any Frenchman who had ever lived" and who "you [wish] with all your heart...would confess to a liking for something just a little bit vulgar". Or Her Britannic Majesty's Representative, who while fixing his pince-nez more firmly on his nose, argues that it is monstrously untrue to accuse him of putting on airs of superiority.
Then there are the confessional moments, the ones that are so perfectly familiar...but which, I realise as I write this, probably won't be for much longer:
"How precious then is the inordinate length of your book (for you are travelling light and you have limited yourself to three) and how jealously you read every word of every page so that you may delay as long as possible the dreaded moment when you must reach the end! You are mightily thankful then to the authors of long books and when you turn over their pages, reckoning how long you can make them last, you wish they were half as long again."
On a Chinese Screen is a magnificent read, capturing in so few words entire people and a painful, lingering sense of cultural superiority, and I found myself wishing that I'd spent more time engaging and reflecting during my past trips abroad, rather than letting so much slip through my fingers as I watched the shutter click again and again.
Until I read this paragraph referring to the work of Jonathan Swift: "the words," writes Maugham, "are the same as those we use to-day and there is hardly a sentence in which they are not placed in the simplest order; and yet there is a dignity, a spaciousness, an aroma, which all our modern effort fails to attain: in short there is style."
A familiar sentiment.
Perhaps, after all, food photography isn't to blame. Perhaps it's perfectly normal not to be able to appreciate something until we have enough distance from it that our perspective is sufficiently undistorted by time and emotion. Now excuse me while I upload some photos of my afternoon coffee to my Instagram account.(less)
Yesterday I asked the readers of the RIASS Facebook page whether they make themselves finish reading a book that's really not to their tastes, or whether they put such a book down. And if the latter, at what point would they do so?
There's a reason that this review is appearing about a week later than originally scheduled. And that's because it took me about a week to read this. And not because it's a particularly long or challenging read. I simply found it incredibly difficult to get through, for a number of reasons, although having at long last finished the book, I'm a little more mixed in my response.
Faith Holland has returned to her small New England home town after hightailing it out of there after a disastrous wedding day in which her fiance Jeremy came out as gay. Faith is not only nursing a broken heart, but also a good deal of loathing towards Levi Cooper, whom she blames for encouraging Jeremy to come out. Levi, meanwhile, is still recovering from the collapse of his marriage. But sparks, of course, begin to fly between Faith and Levi, no matter how much the two try to deny it by turning their attentions elsewhere--Levi to his police work and his sister Sarah's struggles with fitting in at uni; Faith to her landscape design business and her utter determination to fix up her widower father with a new partner.
In a way I'm glad that I forced myself to keep reading through this one, because the book's redeeming qualities are largely at its end. We begin to see some nuance to chauvinist Levi and obnoxious Faith (even though this mostly occurs through a series of excruciatingly long flashbacks), and they become slightly less appalling than they are at the outset of the book. Because, my goodness, if I knew these people in real life I'd be fleeing away from their venomous, misogynistic attitudes as quickly as my little legs could take me.
I'm afraid that I'm one of those people who doesn't really find much humour in putting down people, and I'm not someone who appreciates sexist, misogynistic attitudes, and The Best Man has plenty of both. It's this that had me very, very close to setting down the book by the end of the first chapter, and if I hadn't been asked to review this one, I would have been done with it then and there.
The anti-women sentiments abound in this book, so I'll just pull out a couple of examples for you. We have an instance where Faith is on a date with a man who is (unbeknownst to Faith) married, and whose wife shows up and begins calling Faith a "whore" over and over. We see Faith and her family constantly look down on other woman, calling her father's maybe-girlfriend Lenora a "gold digger" (and indeed Lenora is portrayed as a money-grubbing individual; she's also made a subject of ridicule for the outfits she chooses to wear); and behaving cruelly towards another woman they initially think might have been a possible partner for Faith's father. And let's not even get into the horrible scene where a transgender person is called a "shemale" and where Faith and her sisters behave horrifically cruelly.
To be honest, I'm not sure that I can think of one woman in the book who's actually portrayed in a positive light. Perhaps Levi's sister? (Although she's not a great feminist herself--from memory, she calls her room-mate a "slut".) It's certainly not "slutty" Jessica, Levi's ex from high school, and nor is it Levi's ex-wife, who's portrayed as a man-eating beast. If I subtracted a star each time the word "slut", "slutty" or "whore" was used in this book, the universe would be a very dark place. (Incidentally, I just did a search and came up with fifteen instances of "slut" or "slutty"; sixteen of "whore"; and one of "whorish".)
We get the odd moment of positivity out of Faith's grandmother, but that's downplayed by her husband's apparent loathing of her. With this sort of attitude towards woman going on in this town, it's little wonder that Faith's overarching goal in life is to get married (as you probably raised an eyebrow at in the book summary above, no, she didn't seem to care at all about Jeremy's sexual orientation or his own happiness, just as long as he married her in the end)--what else is there? Curiously, the only arcs that are dealt with with any degree of sensitivity are those of Jeremy and Levi.
What's frustrating is that beneath all of this cheap name-calling and jokey sexist hatred, there is a story that's worth reading, but in my opinion, it definitely doesn't come out in the book's current incarnation--or at least, for a reader of my own outlook it doesn't. I have no issue with warts-and-all portrayals, but that's not what's going on here, and I'm afraid that this one wasn't to my taste at all.(less)
My husband Jono and I have pretty divergent reading tastes: his section of the bookshelf is largely business books and non-fiction, whereas mine's largely fiction with the odd piece of narrative non-fiction thrown in. But there is some overlap in our reading habits, and zingy fiction that treads the line between MG and YA definitely comprises a large part of that meeting of our Venn reading subsets.
If you've been following my Twitter feed at all, you'll probably know by now that Jono's a big fan of Ally Carter's books, and that he's ploughed through both the Gallagher Girls series and the Heist Society books with the kind of fiendish concentration that only a computer programmer can manage.
Since he's such a fan, the crew at Hachette Australia and I thought that it might be fun to get his thoughts on Carter's latest, Perfect Scoundrels...and some fun photos while we were at it.
Steph: There aren’t many books that manage to capture your attention enough that you don’t end up putting them aside or skimming through to the end, but Carter seems to be a pretty reliable go-to for you. What is it about her books that keeps you reading rather than reaching for your phone or laptop?
Jono: I prefer the Heist Society series to the Gallagher Girls, mostly because I find the story of how the main character, Katarina Bishop, unlocks the puzzle of each heist quite interesting. That coupled with lots of action and a fast moving plot should keep me reading early into the morning.
Steph: A fast moving plot is definitely a must-have item for you, although I'm a bit the opposite: I find that I get narrative whiplash when things move too quickly for me to keep up with. In Perfect Scoundrels I found myself flicking back to refresh my memory about who was who. Was this an issue for you?
Jono: Nope. Though, Perfect Scoundrels probably expected you to already be familiar with a few characters that were introduced in previous books.
Steph: All right, then, smarty-pants. What about the ending of this one? Although I enjoyed the first three-quarters of the book, I couldn't shake the niggling feeling that everything wrapped up a little bit too quickly and conveniently, with essential characters just popping up out of nowhere to help Kat and her crew resolve things. What did you think about this?
Jono: It did end too quickly. The author just wrapped it up so suddenly. It was like the editor said, “hey, quick, you need to get this book submitted!” The pace exponentially increased until it fell off a cliff. I also didn't like how the way that the return to the Henley was dealt with. I just felt like in the first book in the series it was so hard to get into the Henley, but in this book they managed to get in straight away. It sort of damaged the whole "puzzle" nature of the books. I much prefer the books when they're about nutting out the puzzles and trying to come up with something really creative and unexpected. This time around it felt like this real smoosh between Gallagher Girls and Heist Society.
Steph: A smoosh?
Jono: It is smoosh. It's not even a mix. It's a smoosh.
Steph: Okay. On a similar note, I found that the book suffered from an odd expositional quirk. Every chapter either starts with a truism about Kat and her life, or with a sort of cinematic scene-setting that gives us an overview of a scene and then zooming in to give us a closer look. This sort of thing works in a serial novel or a film, but I found it out-of-place and cumbersome in a book--particularly when it was used at the beginning of every chapter. It kept me distanced as a reader and meant that it took me a while to settle in to each chapter. Did you have any issues with the writing at all?
Jono: The writing didn’t really bother me too much. I’ve always been more of a plot person. If it bores me, I’ll just skip it, so I don’t really notice it.
Steph: How about the romance side of things? I know that you were frustrated over the romantic arc in the Gallagher Girls books, but you seem to be much more on-board with the relationship arc in this series, even though in this one we begin to see the romance element become more prominent.
Jono: In Gallagher Girls I found being exposed to the thoughts of an early teenage girl on her crush a little too icky for my liking. The romantic elements of the book were given a lighter touch than in the Gallagher Girls series so it didn't bother me too much at all. The thing with Gallagher Girls is that you get in the head of this teenage girl who's having these crushes, and it's just too much. In this series the romance is sort of there, but only because they're angry with each other. The romance is there to add tension rather than just being sappy. There aren't a lot of sappy moments, and I'm not continually in Kat's head hearing her act like a teenage girl.
Steph: I couldn’t help but feel that Perfect Scoundrels suffered from “scope creep”. I feel that the series is at its best when it’s focused on heists and double-crossings, whereas here we end up in a sort of Austin Powers quasi-parody territory with the introduction of a device that essentially has the power to change the world. I couldn’t suspend disbelief with this plot element, and given that each book in the series seems to be ramping up the stakes, I’m a bit nervous about where the next in the series is going to go. What were your thoughts on this?
Jono: I enjoy the puzzle-nature of the books, and Perfect Scoundrels doesn't have the raw puzzle solving nature as the earlier two books. I didn't really think of it as scope creep; really, the Austin Powers-esque plot reminded me a lot of Gallagher Girls. It seemed as if the author was blending together the Gallagher Girls and Heist Society series, so it's no surprise that at the end of the book is a novella that blends the two worlds together.
Steph: You have mixed feeling about the Gallagher Girls books, so what do you think about the fact that the novella blends the two worlds? Is this something you want to see more of in the future?
Jono: It depends where the author takes it. Probably some people will prefer one series to the other depending on whether they prefer action or getting into the heads of the characters, so it will depend on which one gets more emphasis. Personally, I read for these clever plots and I enjoy seeing an author subvert your expectations. When you're in your twenties or thirties you've read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies, so I like seeing how authors can make something new out of an action story and surprise the reader.
Steph: Well, as a thirty-year-old guy you're not exactly her target reader...and yet you're a huge fan. Do you think that Carter has cross-gender appeal? If not, what's the key to getting guys to read her books?
Jono: The Gallagher Girls books seem targeted at teenage girls, whereas Heist Society appears to be targeted at a wider audience. Strong female characters have strong cross-gender appeal, and provided there's a strong, fast moving plot with action, guys like me would love to read it. The Gallagher Girls books have a lot of action, but there's so much other stuff that I can't relate to--the girls talk about crushes and things that I'm not that interested in. Whereas the Heist Society books have a lot of action, and don't spend too much time in the character's head. Books need to get to the point and keep things moving, and I think that the Heist Society books do that.
Steph: So you'll keep reading to see where Carter takes both series?
Jono: I'm interested in seeing where Carter takes the Gallagher Girls-Heist Society hybrid thing, particularly if she can incorporate the Heist Society puzzle-type thing into a new book. I don't want the novella to just be a side story: you have people who are invested in two different worlds already, and you've gone to all the effort of blending together the worlds, so I want to see what happens with that set-up. There is a danger of having her characters all feel really similar--am I going to be able to distinguish between the different characters in the different worlds? It'll be really interesting to see how she set it up.
Whew, here I am, having emerged from air after slogging my way through Elizabeth Hoyt's Lord of Darkness, the latest in her Maiden Lane series. Though not a long novel, Lord of Darkness certainly feels it: I suspect that there might be some sort of time dilation powers hidden within its pages.
There's a reason that category romance novels tend to fall in at just under two hundred or so pages, and that's that it's terribly difficult to sustain a plot that's entirely predicated on the romantic back-and-forth between two people beyond that. Category authors work within some stringent word length constraints to be able to give us a story arc that's believable, and to flesh out their main and secondary characters as well, and the more I read within the romance genre, the more I appreciate the skill involved in doing this well.
Though I've read a handful of shorter historical romances, Hoyt's Lord of Darkness is my first foray into the heftier works in this genre, and I have to say that I've come away feeling a little dizzy and not entirely enlightened. In part I suspect that this is because I've come in mid-way through a series, and that the novel leans heavily on previous the preceding volumes. But my ambivalence has a lot to do with the fact that overall this is a sadly uneven book...which makes it feel much, much longer than it actually is.
The novel largely involves the development of the relationship between hero Godric, widower nobleman by day and ye olde time vigilante Ghost of St Giles by night, and Megs, with whom Godric entered into a marriage of convenience two years prior in order to stave off gossip about Megs's pregnancy--to a man who had been recently killed. The two have lived entirely separate lives since then, each mourning their respective partners, and in Megs's case, the loss of her baby. But now Megs is back in Godric's life, and she's determined to have a baby. Of course, doing so will involve consummating the marriage and coming to terms with the losses of their loved ones.
So much of a romance novel is about the relationship between the two main characters and the reader's connection with them. Unfortunately, I never really connected with Godric's character, nor with that of Megs, and by the end of the novel I felt like one of the many long-suffering guests forced to board at their home: I wanted nothing more than to escape their frustrating bickering and the infuriating repetition of their interactions. Obviously as the two are already married, we need something to keep them apart, which here is Godric's love for his deceased wife and Megs's love/guilt surrounding her lover. But the way that these issues are overcome feels abrupt and at odds with the set-up that they're given: we go from chastity and mourning to endless (and not in a good way) sex scenes.
In addition to the romance between Godric and Megs, there's all sorts of other stuff going on, much of it between characters who I imagine must have played significant roles in previous books, because there are plot threads here that seem to be ongoing--such as that of Artemis, a point of view character who slips in and out of the narrative for a reason I couldn't fathom without having read the prior books in the series. The society scenes are hard to parse without this background knowledge, and the Ghost of St Giles business is a bit of a mess--the plot conceits to get both Godric and Megs in the same place and to eventually reveal Godric's secret identity feel contrived; the Secret Garden allusion with Megs's dead tree in the garden felt forced as well. Oddly enough, the high point of the novel has nothing to do with the main characters and their arcs, but is rather grumpy old Aunt Elvina and her pet pug Her Grace, both of whom snuffle and snort around and get up to all sorts of mischief.
With Lord of Darkness I found myself alternating between floundering through scenes where I felt like a gatecrasher at a party and between feeling as though I was forcing myself through a viscous vat of verbiage. Though I'm sure having read the previous books in this series would have helped me get a better handle on this one, I'm not sure I want to commit to reading four other books that might well suffer from the same issues as this one.(less)
Anyone who’s been reading this site for a while knows that I regularly pass on zingy series fiction to my husband. Though his reading interests are polar opposites of mine, he’s possibly an even tougher critic. He’s basically a thirty-year-old teenage boy, and a mere paragraph of extraneous exposition results in him skim-reading–or worse, putting down a book for good.
Presently I can only think of half a dozen or so series that pass the husband test. These include Michael Grant’s Gone series, Ally Carter’s Gallagher Girls and Heist Society series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, and the mega-fat Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss. With Steven Lochran’s Vanguard Prime books, I can add another to this list. (When I get a chance, Steve, I’ll totally make you a badge.)
The standard X meets Y elevator pitch for these books seems to be Alex Rider meets X-Men, but I’d disagree–and only partly because Alex Rider failed the husband test. My description would be something more along the lines of Percy Jackson meets Captain Planet after a serious red cordial and jelly snake binge. (Strangely enough, very few of my blurbs end up on the backs of books. I can’t imagine why that is.)
But in all seriousness, Wild Card, the second in Lochran’s Vanguard Prime series, is excellent stuff. It’s a book that, like the Percy Jackson books, combines quick-draw pacing with intelligent, self-aware humour and a wonderful sense of the humanity that is underscored by its super-human characters. Lochran has a superb understanding of the power of juxtaposition and contrast, and he uses his superhero glitz and glamour as a lens through which to examine the everyday.
So plot-wise, what do we have? Here’s a quick run-down. Newly recruited superhero Goldrush is off attending a personal development session when he and his chaperone the Knight of Wands are attacked. It turns out that the Knight of Wands is the subject of a Kill Order–but as they try to find out who’s behind the order, Goldrush and the Knight of Wands find themselves caught up in a complex battle of maybe-good versus maybe-bad, with many shades of grey in between. No one’s entirely as they seem, and Lochran plays up the moral ambiguity of the situation to excellent effect, giving us a fascinating cast of characters with conflicting interests and intriguing back-stories.
Unlike many such series, our protagonist is not a kind of blank-slate everyman. He’s surprisingly well-defined for such a slender volume, and Lochran puts him to work battling all sorts of existential and moral dilemmas. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the fact that Goldrush (also known as Sam) identifies as somewhere in the middle of the spectrum (binary?) of ordinary person and superhero. Throughout the book he vacillates between dreaming about what his friends from his “ordinary” life are doing and bridling at the fact that he hasn’t been formally acknowledged as a member of his new superhero family. He also finds himself seeking out the mundane in the extraordinary and vice-versa, and these small moments add up to something that over time creates quite an impact.
At first all of this identity crisis business may seem at odds with the larger business of fighting baddies, but in Lochran’s cleverly realised world, it’s not at all. Goldrush’s identity is key to the decisions that he makes–as is pointed out quite explicitly by the Knight of Wands during his superheroism as a “call to personal evolution” speech. The speech might seem immediately applicable to Goldrush, but in fact it’s universally applicable.
What Lochran is doing with Wild Card is ambitious and clever. It’s less the kind of a superhero story you might see on the big screen, and more one where the term “super” is used to simply exaggerate very real issues. Lochran’s characters speak of superheroes, of superheroism, or superpowers, but in many ways they live in a world of omni-hyperbole. When everything is exaggerated, those exaggerations then become normalised, bringing us back full circle: this series is in many ways a classic bildungsroman–only set against a backdrop of kapows, witty banter and leotards, and with a plot that’s more determined that your typical Terminator to keep on truckin’.
Admittedly, there are some things that felt a little incongruously heavy-handed against this thematic elegance and some very, very slick writing. I do wonder whether the fact that I stumbled over these elements was due partly to my lack of familiarity with the graphic novel side of the superhero canon, which I’d bet that this series draws upon quite heavily. For example, I felt that the switching between the points-of-views of Goldrush and his antagonists resulted in some choppiness, particularly when those scenes were action-heavy and were occurring simultaneously; neither was I entirely satisfied with the nightmares that bookend the story. Curiously, I can see these elements working in a more visually oriented format–and wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this was the effect that Lochran was going for here.
A gripe that’s less readily explained by the above but that can probably be put down to the difficulties of marketing an Australian author to a global audience is the fact that the book feels locationally ambiguous: I didn’t get a strong sense of Sam’s background, and felt that both Sam and his non-superhero life felt a bit unanchored as a result. Once things get moving, however, we’re spirited off to more concrete locations, which certainly helps to ground the book.
Brimming with imagination and wit and with pacing so fast that you’ll be in pain from the G forces, Wild Card is a overall thoroughly enjoyable addition to the superhero genre. And given that it passed the husband test with flying colours, I’m pretty sure it’ll pass the disaffected teen reader test, too.(less)
My father is a small man. He is small in stature. He is small in emotions. And he is also small in achievement. My father’s greatest achievement is the PhD he obtained just after I was born. When I turned eighteen, he gave me a copy of his PhD. When I turned twenty-one, he asked when I would be obtaining a PhD of my own. My father is a scientist. He thinks in terms of formulae and processes. I am a writer. I think in terms of people. Sometimes I think that his PhD is a proxy for the love that he is unable to give. It is also a love that I am unable to understand. * At over five hundred pounds, Big Ray is a large man. He is so morbidly obese that he can scarcely drive, that the parts of his body below his gut are uncharted territory. He is a man whose stature is matched by a personality so enormously overwhelming that although you want to look away, you can’t. Big Ray does not necessarily enjoy being obese, but he does enjoy being larger than everyone else. * My father has never forgiven my mother for leaving him. I don’t think he ever believed that she would. When she tried to suggest marriage counselling, he told her that there was nothing wrong. When she finally took us and moved out, he still did not believe that there was anything wrong. Sometimes his car would drive up our street. Once, the lights were out in his house and the neighbours called the police. There are things here that I want to say, but that I can’t. * It is possibly five days since Big Ray has died. No one is sure, because no one was there to see it happen. When he is found, it is not by his family. When his family learn of his death, they are conflicted. Because Big Ray looms just as large and dangerous in death as he ever did in life. Perhaps more so. Because in death he has finally escaped the body that has trapped him for so long. Big Ray’s body is a sort of punishment. It is his family’s fault that he is obese. It is his family’s fault if he is not taken care of. But Big Ray guzzles soft drink, gorges on junk food, lets his diabetes run rampant. He punishes his family by punishing himself. * At my sister’s engagement party my father took us aside to tell us that he has high blood sugar and high blood pressure. As everyone else drank and danced he told us about how our great-grandmother had both legs amputated. My father says that he does not have time to exercise or eat properly. He also does not have time for his family. He would rather work. This has always been the case. The only time he would call would be on my birthday. Each time he would call he would tell me about his health woes, his relationship woes. He made me cry three birthdays in a row. I don’t answer the phone on my birthday any more. * Big Ray’s story unfolds over five hundred brief entries rather like this one. That’s one entry per pound. Shylock’s demand for a pound of flesh as payment seems trifling in comparison. But Big Ray is a brutal, abusive man, and this payment seems strangely fair.
* My husband tells me that we can never be objective about our relationships. Or our lives. That what we remember is what fits with the narratives that we create. The evidence we use to reconstruct our pasts. I want to believe that this is true. I want to believe that my father loves me, that I am worth being loved. I’m not sure why I care. When I look at photographs of my father I am always struck by the fact that he is not smiling in any of them. I smile too much. I have a lovely smile. Except those times when I remind myself of him. * Big Ray’s son cannot escape his father. But it is only in death, when Big Ray is only a spectre, that he has the courage to try to understand him. Big Ray was, once, a handsome man. He was, once, a happy man. The high point of Big Ray’s life was his entry into the army. Everything after that was a disappointment. He never even saw battle. * It has been a year since my wedding day. It has also been a year since I last spoke to my father. A year since he gave a speech about how much a wedding that my husband and I paid for cost him. A year since he and his girlfriend refused to speak to any of my relatives, colleagues, friends. A year since he commented that a wedding arising from a five-year relationship was a surprise. A year since a friend mentioned that my father doesn’t really know me at all. He doesn’t. I’m not sure how I feel about this. * Big Ray’s son calls Big Ray his father in his reflections. He called him “Dad” in real life. * When I was a kid I used to call my father by his given name. I still feel that this is ap * Big Ray’s son is terrified about having children. * So am I.(less)
My poor husband has been quite disappointed that in all the romance novels that have made their way on to my bookshelves, his own occupation has not so far represented. Where's the IT geek love? he wants to know. With Leah Ashton's A Girl Less Ordinary, he can finally feel vindicated, because the hero in this one gives my geeky husband a run for his money.
Both are uber-nerd software programmers. Both run their own businesses. Both are billionaires. Um, okay, perhaps not the last one (if you're wondering, it's the hero in the book who's the billionaire, not my husband), but two out of three isn't bad.
A Girl Less Ordinary is a reunion romance, and I should admit up-front that, grumpy cynic that I am, I'm not a huge fan of this particular genre. For this reason the book and I got off to a little bit of a rocky start: the prologue, where we rewind from our present-day setting to witness a cringe-worthy--read: unrequited--declaration of love from our then-dorky heroine towards our then-dorky hero, didn't quite work for me.
However, once we get past those awkward teen years and into the present day Ashton really hits her stride. Despite the fact that the premise does indeed hinge on a reunion between our hero and heroine, Ashton doesn't fall prey to mawkish, soft-focus flashbacks. Instead, she keeps the focus on the present day, allowing the past to be alluded to through the way in which the characters react to each other and contrast their present day selves with those of the past.
And goodness, how they've changed. Though our hero and heroine might have started at roughly similar places on the personality spectrum, after ten years they've diverged to the point of serious polarity. Jake is a scruffy, work-obsessed introvert who spends his spare time getting back to nature (cue Castle-esque: "can you feel the serenity?"); while Eleanor, once not so dissimilar, has transformed herself into stylish image-obsessed party-girl Ella. And the circumstances of their reunion? Ella has been hired by Jake's company to transform the reclusive programmer from geek...to chic (sorry, sorry, couldn't resist).
One of the things that I loved about Ashton's debut Secrets and Speed-Dating was that she pushed the boundaries of the category romance; in A Girl Less Ordinary she does so again. There's something in the characterisation that I can't quite put my finger on--perhaps that the story seems to emphasise Jake's point of view and show him in a more sympathetic light than Ella?--but there's a definite sense of this being a category romance with a difference.
In A Girl Less Ordinary the focus is less the romance between Jake and Ella than it is the rekindling of a deep friendship between the two and their subsequent efforts to come to terms with the circumstances that have led to them becoming the people that they are today. Ella in particular is a deeply troubled person, and I was impressed that Ashton was willing to take a risk in writing such a relatively unsympathetic, clearly tormented heroine. That Ella's self-worth was something she herself was tasked with developing, rather than having it sort of bestowed upon her by the cliche of the love of a good man was something that I really appreciated, too.
However, although there was much to enjoy about this one, and I do think that Ashton is an immensely promising writer, I did have a couple of issues with this one (and not all of them due to my grumpy cynical ways). The romantic gesture at the end of the novel felt a little out of character for Jake (although yes, if you've clicked on my proposal link above, you've probably seen that geeky guys can be pretty darn' romantic when they want to be), and I didn't quite buy the way that things turned out. The proofreading in this one was also an issue, which was a surprise, as usually Harlequin books are top-notch in this regard.
In all, though, this is an enjoyable romance from a strong local talent, and I look forward to seeing more from Ashton in the future.(less)
My primary school was a tiny place, one so small that it had no play area to speak of. It did, however, look on to a vast park that was–and still is–a favourite landing place for the city’s hot air balloons. If I’m up early enough, I often see them scudding along overhead before sinking into slumber in the park. But as much as I associate that park with the homecoming of balloons, I do remember an event that was quite the opposite. When I was perhaps four or five, my school held a balloon release event (this seemed marvellous at the time, when I had not yet been conditioned by years of eco-friendly children’s television programming to consider things like the environment). We attached messages to our balloons, and then released our colourful galleons, letting them drift away to conquer new lands (and perhaps meet their doom around a power line or two). There is something so very evocative about balloons. To me, at least, they represent a journey of sorts. Perhaps one of loss; perhaps one of escape; perhaps one of letting go. All of these are evident in Ciara Geraghty’s Lifesaving for Beginners, a rich and nuanced novel of grief and self-discovery.
The book opens with a literal collision of past and present: a car accident involving Kat, a reclusive and pseudonymous bestselling author, and a woman who, though tragically killed at the scene, proves to be an integral link to a past that Kat has been avoiding since her teen years. Kat, in what everyone around her dubs as a miracle, walks away unscathed, but finds herself sinking into an existential malaise: she finds herself pushing away her partner Thomas as he tries to draw closer to her, is unable to commit to work on her contracted novel, and experiences nothing short of terror at the thought of her impending fortieth birthday.
Each of these concerns has something in common: they all represent change and growth, things of which Kat is desperately afraid. As the book progresses and we learn of how she is connected with the woman who dies in the car crash, we realise that Kat still has past demons with which she has not yet come to terms. It’s little wonder that she’s struggling to deal with the idea of those around her moving on to new stages in their lives when she’s still dealing with the issues brought about by an event that occurred during her teenage years. For example, her brother Ed, a young man with Down’s Syndrome, now has a job and a girlfriend, both of which Kat, who is used to playing a sort of carer role towards her brother, continually attempts to undermine: she begs for Ed to come and visit her, asking him over for teen sleepover-style nights of movie watching and junk food bingeing. When her partner Thomas suggests that they move in together, Kat rebuffs him, petulantly complaining that she likes her house and the way that things are. Her editor’s conviction that it’s time for Kat to reveal her true identity is also a source of terror: there’s something safe and escapable about remaining pseudonymous and isolated.
But there’s one change in particular that seems to trigger the greatest reaction in Kat, and that’s her best friend Minnie’s newly announced pregnancy. The dynamics between Kat and Minnie are heartbreaking at best: Minnie is a high-achieving, charismatic woman who has recently married and is now expecting a baby. Kat, meanwhile, continues to cling to her friend in a way that’s desperately unhealthy, and continues to try to insert herself into a relationship where she is no longer plays the same role. When we learn about Kat’s past and how Minnie is one of the few who knows of it, we begin to understand just why Kat is the way that she is.
Although Kat is the true protagonist of the novel, the book is told through dual viewpoints: Kat’s, and that of Milo, a young boy whose mother was killed in the same crash from which Kat was lucky enough to walk away. Milo’s voice provides a warm, honest counterpoint to Kat’s, which is steeped in self-deception and evasiveness, and his viewpoint helps to round out Kat’s character as the novel unfolds and we see how these seemingly unrelated characters are connected. The two viewpoints complement each other beautifully, with Milo’s grief highlighting the way in which Kat has repressed her own grief; and his own growth and maturity highlighting Kat’s lack of the same.
When the two do meet, Milo is in a way a catalyst for Kat’s development and finally realised ability to let go of the past and to move on with her life; curiously, Kat also provides Milo with renewed hope for his own relationships and a new perspective regarding the way that life continues to move on even after the death of a loved one. Between Milo’s Lifesaving for Beginners classes and his wide-eyed reaction as he watches a balloon slip from the hand of a young boy, we see just how important it is to find a balance between holding on and letting go.
At turns moving and humorous, and full of beautifully drawn and complex characters, Lifesaving for Beginners is a delightful read, and I’m glad to have had the opportunity to acquaint myself with Ciara Geraghty’s work. I suspect that Kat and Milo’s stories will continue to resonate with me each time I watch the balloons drift past my window in the pastel light of the early morning.(less)
“And the frontier in here?” the North American had asked, tapping her forehead. “And the frontier in here?” General Arroyo had responded, touching his heart. “There’s one frontier we only dare to cross at night,” the old gringo said. “The frontier of our differences with others, of our battles with ourselves.”
The old gringo has come to Mexico to die: for him, night approaches. And in this richly symbolic, dream-like book we watch as the old man grapples with these emotional frontiers, falling in with those who allow him to make peace with his inner demons. Though he claims to be seeking death (“To be a gringo in Mexico – that is euthanasia!”, he says), death is not yet ready to claim him.
Upon arriving in Mexico he meets Tomas Arroyo, a general in the army of Pancho Villa. Arroyo and his men have just liberated the Miranda landholding, where Arroyo himself grew up. Notably, Arroyo is a mestizo, the mixed-race son of a native woman who was raped by one of the Miranda men; his background is wielded symbolically throughout the book as he engages both with the old gringo and with Harriet Winslow, a young white American woman who has arrived at the Miranda landholding with the intention of educating and civilising.
The old gringo’s relationships with Arroyo and Harriet are complex and moving: he develops a sort of paternal relationship with Arroyo and one that’s romantic towards Harriet. That with Arroyo becomes all the more arresting as we learn of the suicides of the old gringo’s sons and the reasons behind them; the fact that the old gringo eventually dies at Arroyo’s hand is almost inevitable. Meanwhile, his relationship with Harriet is key to helping Harriet begin to learn to live with Mexico, rather than imposing American values on it:
“You’re going to civilise them?” the old man asked drily. “Precisely. And starting tomorrow.” “Wait a little,” the old man said. “They say manana in Spanish, and whatever you do, you have to sleep somewhere tonight.”
The old gringo’s talk of tomorrow (and there’s a dry sense to its use here–not a literal tomorrow, but a more general sense of the future) is prescient, because the death that seeks is not immediately forthcoming, either; likely because he has established these new relationships that first require his attention. After a battle he is one of the few who remains unhurt, although this is perhaps because he’s not truly one of the army (“He is not one of us,” says Arroyo) and therefore can’t die on the same terms.
He hadn’t been wounded. He wasn’t dead….They were dead; not he. He wanted death and was still here, deserving of an ironic pity, helping surround what remained of the Federal regiment, feeling finally the boiling rancour he had expected: the gringo didn’t die, the was he bravest among us, he marched straight on again, like yesterday, as if he wasn’t afraid of anything or anybody, but he didn’t die: Old Gringo!
It’s not until the old gringo’s relationships with Arroyo and Harriet are effectively severed that death finally does claim him.
The dynamics between the three are further complicated by the fact that Harriet and Arroyo have begun a relationship: a fiercely sexual one that (if you can get past the excruciatingly bad prose in these scenes) is at its heart about power, with each of them symbolic of their own countries and backgrounds. ”I shall conquer General Tomas Arroyo before I go back to the routine of life at home,” says Harriet. This notion is quashed by the old gringo, who tells her that in Mexico there was “nothing to subdue and nothing to save”. “Mexico is not a bad country,” he says, “It’s just a different country.”
But although Harriet slowly comes to learn that Mexico is a place that she wants to learn to live with rather than save, her relationship with Arroyo remains conflicted, becoming more so when the old gringo burns the deeds to the Mirandas’ property, with which Arroyo has become obsessed as proof that he and those represented by the revolutionary army are the true owners of the land holding. Though Harriet seeks to cross the frontier between her and Arroyo and their cultures, Arroyo himself is becoming a faction, stepping away from both Harriet and the revolution itself. “My destiny is my own,” he claims.
But like the old gringo, who has crossed a physical frontier and with it, if you’ll excuse the melodramatic turn of phrase, the final one, Harriet too has done the same, physically and culturally. And in doing so she realises that a frontier that is once crossed can never be un-crossed: that the very act of crossing it changes everything.
“You can never go home again, even to the same place and the same people, if by chance both have remained, not the same, but simply there, in their essence. She realised that the English language could only conjugate one kind of being–to be. Home is a memory. The only true memory: for memory is our home.” Though I have my issues with this book, it’s deeply affecting, and one that I think requires more than a single read to do it justice.(less)
Upon the hill above the kirk at moon rise she did stand To tend her sheep that Samhain eve, with rowan staff in hand. And where she's been and what she's seen, no living soul may know And when she's come back home, she will be changed - oh!
I picked up Sharyn McCrumb's The Songcatcher several years ago when on holiday in Malaysia, where my husband is originally from. Like me, he has a slightly confused cultural identity: both of us feel very much like outsiders playing a part. A huge part of the barrier is linguistic. Language is in so many ways caught up with identity, and not being able to speak a particular language, especially one that you appear as though you should be able to speak, is something that immediately positions you as someone who is not a "real" person of that culture.
When I visited Italy a few years back, I was greeted with open arms by the locals--until they realised that I wasn't actually a local myself, but a "Coca-Cola". I had a similar experience in Argentina, and get the same here in Melbourne quite regularly. I look the part--but it's little more than a masquerade. My husband's identity is even more complex. He's from a Malaysian-Chinese family that identifies strongly as Chinese, and yet his command of Cantonese is only good for ordering at restaurants. His Malay is non-existent, and this disconnect between actual and projected identities was problematised further by the fact that he was actually born in Malaysia, and therefore should somehow know both the language and the culture.
Returning home to a place you are connected with--no matter how distantly--is not always easy. The world does not exist in stasis, and I'm sure that the Calabria my grandparents fondly reminisce about is not the Calabria of today. Similarly, the Malaysia experienced through the eyes of a toddler is not the one experienced through those of an adult.
The Songcatcher is a novel of both home and homecoming, and through a number of different viewpoints and across two different timelines explores what it is that makes a place somewhere we might call home, no matter how difficult our relationship with it might be. The Rowan Stave, from which I've quoted at the beginning of this post, is what threads it all together. Passed down from Malcolm McCourry in the mid eighteenth century to his present day descendants, it's a linguistic cue that indicates belonging. We see just how much when Scottish-born Malcolm, upon learning the poem at sea on the way to America, substitutes "staff" for "stave"--an unthinkable mistake.
Malcolm's thread continues with his settling in the Appalachians and the life he leads there; meanwhile, running parallel to this is the present-day story of folk musician Lark McCourry, who is returning home after hearing that her elderly father, with whom she has always had a turbulent relationship, is ailing. However, Lark's plane goes down on the mountains and Lark, though uninjured, is stranded there while she waits for the local search and rescue team to save her. The Rowan Stave becomes in a way her saviour: it's what she uses to connect herself back to the real world while she's lost in the wilderness, and furthermore, if rescued, she plans to record it for posterity. The song, and others like it, forms a key part of her own identity: these narrative songs are in a way a home for a woman who feels she does not have one.
The value of songs as part of the oral tradition is given plenty of emphasis in the book beyond The Rowan Stave. We hear about the Dreamtime, for example, and the way that the world was sung into being. In another instance, the changing of a single word in another song is enough to identify someone as a murderer: if someone sings of a dead girl's petticoat as "red-stained" rather than the standard "red-striped", then perhaps it is because they have base reasons, we hear. Language can be used, then, as a way of determining whether someone belongs in a group, or whether they don't--and this is further explored in the idea of whether people should be allowed to copyright and record traditional songs, and what the act of doing so might actually signify. Is Lark renouncing her identity by making a family song available to everyone?
This idea of language and outsider-ness is further explored, maybe a little unsubtly, but still interestingly in a scene involving a discussion between a hostel owner and a traveller from New York:
"This is my first visit to Appa-lay-chia." Baird said gently, "Well, folks in these parts call it Appa-latch-a." Eeyore shrugged, as if the information did not interest him. "In New York we say Appa-lay-chia." ... "You know," he said to Eeyore, gearing up to his lecture in genial conversational tones, "over in North Ireland once I visited a beautiful walled city that lies east of Donegal and west of Belfast. Now for the last thousand years or so the Irish people who built that city have called it Derry...but the British, who conquered Ireland a few hundred years back, they refer to that same city as London-derry...But you need to understand this: when you choose what name you call that city, you are making a political decision...You are telling some people they can trust you and other people that they can't...Now I reckon Appalachia is a word like that...So you go on and call this place Appa-lay-cha if you want to. But you need to know that by doing that you have made a political decision."
(Incidentally, this led to an hour or so of researching the Appalachian dialect, a dialect that as an Aussie I'm not very familiar with.)
McCrumb certainly pits the Appalachian community against the rest of America, and it's interesting to see just how much language is used to signify belonging not just to a particular biological family, but to a wider social one.
That said, I have to admit that the narrative as a whole didn't quite come together for me. The book features a second plane crash situation that is initially temporally ambiguous--is it occurring after Lark's accident, or at the same time, or is something weird and magical going on here?--but when the issue is resolved I felt a little let down. Similarly, the switching from Malcolm's voice to a series of letters written by his son made for an awkward transition, and only in part because it involved reading a good fifteen pages in italics. I did, however, forgive a lot of this after reading the afterward in which the author notes that much of what is in the story actually stems from her research into her own family history: truth really can be stranger than fiction.
This was my first foray into McCrumb's work, but I found it tremendously engaging and thoughtful, and plan to seek out more from her.(less)
Lorraine Marwood’s Note on the Door is a mischievously eclectic collection: it’s a smattering of wondering, tangential thoughts about daily life and t...moreLorraine Marwood’s Note on the Door is a mischievously eclectic collection: it’s a smattering of wondering, tangential thoughts about daily life and the tightrope of strangeness and familiarity we walk every day.
Each poem is tiny and contained, and there’s something about them that reminds me of a loop or a curl. They’re an explosion of imagery, but not without trajectory: the final line or image of each poem twists the reader around to bring us back to the title, giving us a poetic punchline. The collection is divided into five parts, with each part overseeing a particular theme—family life (and extended family life), holidays, school life, and recreation. Marwood has a wonderful ability to collect small but defining moments and render them perfectly in just a handful of words, and also in an utterly accessible manner.
My favourites? There are many phone lingoes in my house, a delightful taxonomy of the “yes, I know”s and “exactly, exactly” backchannels that people use on the telephone: Me, I just: Nod my head sketch in the air point to the right or left
There’s Our Neighbour, which twists the “cat lady” stereotype with its mention of “Persian princes on her knee”; and Shopping With Mum, a square-peg-round-hole study in the geometry of supermarket items:
We race to see how many of our favourite shapes are needed to fill the not quite rectangle not quite triangle push of Mum’s shopping trolley
Watch Your Sister, about the lure of fairytale worlds over the drudge of minding a sibling; and Grandmother, where a grandmother challenges her grandchild’s fairytale stereotypes:
My knight was tanned from motorbike riding as he chased charging cattle Look, my hair is as long as a wave on a silver beach I can coil it on top to make my own crown
There’s a sense of this volume almost being poetry by accident, of each poem being a throwaway thought or a piece of found poetry: the titular poem, for example, references the famous found poem This is just to say. I think in part that’s what’s so wonderful about this little book as a collection of poetry for young readers. It feels so lively and effortless, with a seeming simplicity that may just encourage a poetry newcomer to step over that scary threshold into the world of verse. A delightful read all round.(less)
Melbourne is a city of serendipity and chance meetings, and I rather suspect that if Kevin Bacon lived in Melbourne I suspect that he would know everyone. I met my husband by chance–twice in one night at two different venues, in fact, but that’s a story for a forthcoming review–but continue to be astonished by just how much our social circles overlap. We went to brother and sister high schools; his sister was the year ahead of me at my school; his high school friend is the brother of one of my friends; his cousin is a close friend of one of my uni friends, who’s also a friend of another of my husband’s friends. This sort of thing is bizarrely the norm for Melbourne.
And if Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City is anything to go by, it’s the same in San Francisco. This delightfully zany novel, first published as an ongoing serial, comprises a series of short and sweet vignettes about a half dozen or so people whose lives intersect through all manner of ways: work, housing, sex, the laundrette and many more besides. It’s the sort of thing that perhaps to people living in a place unlike Melbourne (and presumably unlike San Francisco) might feel contrived, like the forcible bashing together of atoms, but to some whose entire social life is a veritable cross-hatch of chance encounters and mysterious acquaintance, it feels oh so comically familiar.
Our catalogue of characters is fascinating and eccentric, running the gamut from the joint-gifting landlady Anna Madrigal to the fish-out-of-water Mary Anne (whose story this seems as though it will be, but isn’t, really) to Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, a kind-natured gay man who easily steals the show. Everyone is connected in some way, and though it’s not always immediately apparent how, I enjoyed watching these connections slowly unfold as the book progressed, as well as watching Maupin juxtapose characters with entirely different outlooks on life.
I think in large part what’s contributed so much to the success of the series is its format. The vignette/serial approach serves to sharpen the delivery of these pointedly mundania-with-a-twist tales while also adding a comic veneer that makes it all, for the most part, work: the result is what feels like a series of pithy yarns. Each is carefully set up, progresses into the realm of the hilariously melodramatic via a page or so of cracking dialogue, and is then rounded off with a zingy one-liner or staccato-like final paragraph that brings it all home. The imposed word-count limitations of the serial format means that there’s little flab here: Maupin relies heavily on dialogue to drive things along, with any exposition having to work hard to justify its presence on the page.
That said, the dialogue-heavy approach does occasionally result in a sense that the stories are sort of floating about on the page, and I did find myself feeling disconnected from the text at certain points. (I do also wonder whether the fact that I’m reading this book as a twenty-something Australian in 2013 has something to do with it given that I suspect that a large part of what makes this book such a cult classic is its keen eye for 70s living and the various individuals and brands, many of which are unfamiliar to me, that are lampooned.)
Still, even though I’m a bit late to the party I had a ball reading about people prowling supermarkets looking to pick up; the dangers of macrame ceiling art; and the problems with injectable melatonin (bizarrely I read a newspaper article about this very thing just yesterday). Give it a shot, and if you happen to bump into me down the street one day, as you no doubt will, let me know what you think.(less)