20 Books of Summer, #1: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

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I only reluctantly decided to read John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, having become a little weary of novels which deal with the lengthy historical sufferings of gay men, and wishing that writers could find other stories to tell about sexual identity. However, I’m very glad that a string of positive reviews from other bloggers convinced me to pick up this doorstopper of a novel (my review copy is literally a brick: it’s so fat it can easily stand up by itself). In many ways, Cyril Avery’s story is indeed a familiar one. Born out of wedlock in Ireland in 1945 and given up for adoption by his teenage mother Catherine after the Catholic Church condemns her, he struggles with his own homosexuality from the moment he becomes aware of it. As Cyril lives through false relationships with women, encounters with the police and the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York, we catch up with him at seven-year intervals until the book’s epilogue in 2015. For much of his life, he conceals his turbulent emotions and sexual desire beneath a veneer of heterosexual respectability: while the novel’s title comes up in reference to another character, it could as easily be used to refer to Cyril himself: ‘A line came into my mind, something that Hannah Arendt once said about the poet Auden: that life had manifested the heart’s invisible furies on his face.’

The Heart’s Invisible Furies, however, is not a sad or depressing book, chiefly because it’s told as a comedy, rather than a tragedy, despite moments of genuine pathos. Most of its characters are delightful caricatures: from Cyril’s adoptive mother, Maud Avery, who writes novels but is terrified of publicity, and approached her one and only literary event by trying to read out the whole of her novel from beginning to end; to Cyril’s best friend and secret love, Julian Woodbead, who spends his time sleeping with as many women as possible and making up flamboyant lies about his life. Certain characters attain an air of greater seriousness, including Cyril himself and his mother Catherine, but on the whole, the novel is deliberately pitched as an engrossing romp. Boyne effectively balances this lightheartedness with the genuine pain that characterises most of Cyril’s experiences; in the middle of the novel, it felt to me that he had gone rather too far in piling on the misery, but by the end, Cyril’s story seems to make sense thematically, as he observes an Ireland that has just legalised gay marriage: ‘When the vote was passed… I was watching the news reports on the television,’ he says. ‘And there was David Norris. It’s a little bit late for me, he said, once he knew that it was a Yes and the country had changed for ever. I’ve spent so much time pushing the boat out that I forgot to jump on and now it’s out beyond the harbour on the high seas, but it’s very nice to look at… Why couldn’t Ireland have been like this when I was a boy?’

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is genuinely funny and, despite its length, very difficult to put down (although the weight of my copy meant that I sometimes had to do so). Here’s a picture of the monster, with tea cup for comparison:

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Anarchism, childhood and The Demon Headmaster

Inspired by a combination of Matilda: The Musical, which I saw at the Sunderland Empire a few weeks ago, and Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood ReadingI’ve been thinking about childhood books I read that were pleasingly, if perhaps unintentionally, critical of prevailing ideas about schooling and childhood. The first that sprang to mind was Gillian Cross’s The Demon Headmaster (1982). The premise is simple: a headmaster possesses the power to hypnotise (almost) anybody he can look straight in the eye, and keeps a school of children under his thrall so he can pursue his plans for world domination and the imposition of an orderly, perfect society. A small group of children are naturally resistant to hypnosis, and so form SPLAT (Society for the Protection of Our Lives Against Them. Could an acronym be more perfect?). However, when two of our protagonists, Lloyd and Harvey, meet their new foster sister, Dinah, they realise that despite her exceptional intelligence, she’s as easily hypnotised as the other children. Will Lloyd and Harvey be brought down by the ‘traitor’ in their midst, or does Dinah hold the key to their salvation?

 

A series of Demon Headmaster covers. L to R: The copy I first read from my school library; the copy I own; the weird modern cover, where the Headmaster looks like a Midwich Cuckoo.

The things I love about The Demon Headmaster are as follows:

  • The demon headmaster, referred to only as the Headmaster in the book, teaches by hypnotising the children so they learn long chunks of lessons by heart, but we later find out that he’s also implanting instructions to his pupils so they can execute his future evil plans, which will be led by the prefects. School as a training ground for capitalist society, anyone? (Although it’s fair to say that the Headmaster’s future plans sound decidedly more quasi-communist than capitalist, unsurprisingly considering when this book was written.)
  • The Headmaster also implants hypnotic commands so the children will recite rote answers when questioned by their parents about school. The best of these is what’s triggered whenever the Headmaster himself is mentioned: “I think the Headmaster is a marvellous man and this is the best school I’ve ever been to.” However, none of the parents notice how weirdly their children are behaving, nor do they listen to SPLAT’s protests that their peers are obviously hypnotised. Unintentionally, the book draws attention to the routine ignoring and belittling of children’s perspectives, especially their views regarding school.
  • Dinah is a kind of character I’ve never encountered anywhere else; she’s incredibly bright but desperate to hide her intelligence, not because she fears being bullied but because she knows it will mark her out among the adults as weird and precocious. She also visibly struggles to not jump ahead of her peers too quickly for the sake of maintaining friendships. Precious few books deal with the particular trials of being a very bright child; there’s lots of narratives about ‘bookish’ children being bullied but it’s rare to find something that’s so clear about the other difficulties of being ‘ahead of one’s age’ (and indeed the ageism that’s inherent in that very assumption).
  • SPLAT’s set of passwords is the Headmaster’s motto: ‘The man who can keep order can rule the world’ followed by their own response: ‘But the man who can bear disorder is truly free.’ So basically, they’re an anarchist collective bringing down a Stalin-like dictatorship. Excellent!

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Still from the Demon Headmaster TV series: a perfectly cast Headmaster with his prefects.

The Demon Headmaster was followed up by two even better, if less subversive, sequels: The Prime Minister’s Brain and The Revenge of the Demon Headmaster, then a few other sequels that were decidedly sub-par, and seemingly tacked on after the books were made into a TV series (which was FAB, despite terrible child acting from everyone except Dinah and Rose, the female head prefect).

Can anyone think of other subversive school fiction like Matilda and The Demon Headmaster?

Holiday reading in the South of France, May 2018

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I’ve just got back from the South of France, where a friend and I spent five days travelling through Toulouse, Albi, Cordes-sur-Ciel and Carcassonne – I travelled straight from another friend’s wedding in London last weekend. Over the past week or so, I’ve had a run of reads that didn’t quite satisfy me for one reason or another, bookended by one very good novel, and one that I thought was outstanding.

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First, I finished off Pachinko, Min Jin Lee’s saga of a Korean family in Japan, which spans most of the twentieth century. In many ways, it felt familiar – a multi-generational story with fairly broad-brush characterisation that focuses on engaging the reader’s emotion through a series of hardships and tragedies. However, Lee has the knack of writing irresistibly readable prose, and her light handling of the complicated history of an oppressed minority compared favourably to the more indigestible lumps in Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma. Unlike Craig, Lee also knows when to fast-forward and when to linger; Pachinko can hop years in a page or spend two chapters on a single day, but never feels too quick or too slow. The simple metaphor of pachinko – a kind of Japanese pinball – is both obvious and effective. The two upstanding Korean brothers at the centre of this story, Noa and Mozasu, both end up running pachinko businesses, despite their links with the criminal underworld, because of the difficulty of finding other kinds of work as Koreans in Japan. Mozasu explains how he keeps his pachinko parlour profitable: he fine-tunes the little rods in the machines at the end of every day, for shifting them only slightly to the left or right will alter the path of the ball and hence the fate of the player. In short, Lee explores how this holds true for the destinies of the human characters in her story as well.

 

Next, I finished Sugar Money, Jane Harris’s third novel, which is based on the true story of a group of slaves on a mission to smuggle back a group of fellow slaves from Grenada to Martinique in 1765. I liked Harris’s debut, The Observations, and loved her second, Gillespie and Ibut although Sugar Money has a number of the same virtues – most notably her facility for vivid voice – I couldn’t get on with it. Harris seems to have been so concerned with the real historical facts she’s following that she sacrifices depth for accuracy. Much of Sugar Money becomes simply this-happened-and-then-this-happened, despite the initially engaging narrative of its young narrator, Lucien. Leone Ross has an interesting take on it in the Guardianwhile I don’t agree with everything she says here (I think Harris was rightly concerned about lingering on black pain, hence her carefully limited but still hard-hitting descriptions of the horrors of slavery), it’s certainly a review worth reading.

Equally disappointing, though for very different reasons, was Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, his Pulitzer-prize winning novel about three generations of a Dominican family, set between Santo Domingo and New Jersey. Packed with slangy Spanish, Diaz’s prose is sparkily experimental, but I only really fell into the novel in the brief first-person sections that were free of footnotes, asides, or ironic sub-divisions. And while I’d been planning to read this for some time, it was unfortunate that I picked it up in the wake of reports of sexual harassment on the part of Diaz, which made me extra-alert to the misogyny evident in Diaz’s handling of his female characters, who all seem obsessed with their own bodies.

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I picked up Pages for You, Sylvia Brownrigg’s 2001 novel about a love affair between two women, after reading the coverage of its more recent follow-up, Pages for Her. This would have felt ground-breaking to me as a fourteen-year-old in 2001, but now feels frustratingly cliched. I found myself scribbling a list of irritated questions as I raced through that apply to far too many novels about women who are sexually attracted to each other:

  • Why are one or both of the women usually young/at university/lacking agency?
  • Why always presented as accidental desire rather than as part of an identity? ‘I did it because I want her’ rather than ‘I did it because of who I am’?
  • Why always heightened and erotic? Why not about ordinary life, taking out the bins, etc.?
  • Why always about realisation rather than familiarity [wrt sexual identity]?
  • Why do they have to be original and bohemian?
  • Why does it always have to end badly?
  • Why do they always end up going back to men? [This is not a complaint about women who are explicitly presented as bisexual in the course of the novel, but about women who seem to be lesbians and yet refuse to use the word or to exclusively pursue relationships with women.]

In the case of Pages for You, I also felt uncomfortable with the unquestioning depiction of a relationship between an university tutor and a student, something which hasn’t aged well.

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However, The Western Wind, Samantha Harvey’s fourth novel, was a fantastic way to finish my holiday reading, and appropriately atmospheric when surrounded by medieval architecture. Having read Dear ThiefI knew Harvey was an incredible prose writer, but here she demonstrates a breadth that goes beyond the relatively narrow confines of her previous novel (much as I loved it). The Western Wind, set in the small Somerset village of Oakham in 1491, is narrated by the local priest, John Reve. The novel opens with the confirmation of the death of one of the most prominent villagers, Thomas Newman: a man respected by his fellows as a wealthy benefactor, but who recently returned from a trip to Rome with new and strange ideas about religion. When the dean swoops in to investigate Newman’s death, Reve realises that to protect his flock he will have to find some answers of his own. Was Newman murdered? Did he fall in by accident, mirroring the fate of the last bridge that was supposed to connect Oakham to the outside world? Or – despite the stakes for his immortal soul – could he have committed suicide?

The Western Wind is especially impressive in its handling of time. The novel, like Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch, moves backwards; we start on the fourth day, when Newman’s abandoned shirt is discovered, and finish on the first day, when Newman is still alive. Harvey handles this incredibly well; the closer time frame means she has to be even cleverer than Waters to avoid unnecessary repetition and confusion, and she pulls it off with consistent grace, making brilliant use of seemingly throwaway details. The cold goose fat in Reve’s fireplace on the fourth day becomes a goose unhappily devoured on the third; milk trickling between cobbles on the third day becomes a milk-cart upset on the second. However, I think it would be a mistake to think of the book’s structure as linear in either direction. As the repeating chapter titles indicate, Harvey is exploring the different ways in which these late medieval villagers might have thought of time; it’s also circular, with each season leading to the next and the birth of Jesus leading to his death and then his birth. It’s only when the book comes full circle and we witness Reve’s last conversation with Newman that we understand what has happened. The two ends join together.

Harvey also makes adept use of the conceit of the confessional, newly introduced to Oakham at the time of Newman’s death after he brought back news of this novel practice from Rome (I’ve seen some quibbling about the accuracy of this from some readers, but it seems to me that Harvey isn’t thinking about a fixed, immovable confession-box but some form of structure in which to give confessions, rather than them being heard in public as was the previous practice.) In this limited privacy, Reve learns more about his fellow villagers than was the case before. And we too get a glimpse into a medieval village that seems entirely complete, with its own rituals and connections. Whatever the precise dating of confessionals, Harvey certainly does as well with the medieval mindset as could be expected in a modern novel, especially when exploring Reve’s faith and his fretting over Newman’s ultimate fate. For example, Reve frets over whether Newman saw St Christopher on the wall of the church before he died, as this was believed to provide some protection for the soul for those who died unshriven. The Western Wind requires some thought and time from the reader, but it definitely repays that effort.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

I’m now making a start on my 20 Books of Summer, beginning with Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies. Inspired by The Western Wind, I’m also re-reading another slow and patient novel about a man with pastoral responsibility for his flock, albeit almost four hundred years later; Peter Hobbs’s The Short Day Dyingnarrated by a Methodist lay-preacher. And I’ll have to find time to read my book group’s choice for June, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks!

20 Books of Summer, 2018

 

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I’m having a go at Cathy’s (746 Books) 20 Books of Summer challenge for the third year running! I’ve never yet managed to read AND review all 20 books, so perhaps this will be the year I have a breakthrough. The challenge runs from 1st June to 3rd September, though I usually cheat by including the whole of September.

My Twenty Books

Each with a one-line plot summary, then a one-line summary of why I’ve chosen it.

  • American War: Omar El Akkad. This debut ‘is set in a near-future United States of America ravaged by climate change in which a second Civil War has broken out over the use of fossil fuels.’ [Wikipedia.] The premise sounds intriguing, and it was recommended in the Guardian’s best books of 2017.
  • Sick: Porochista Khakpour. ‘An honest, beautifully rendered memoir of chronic illness, misdiagnosis, addiction, and the myth of full recovery that details author Porochista Khakpour’s struggles with late-stage Lyme disease.’ [author’s website] I love medical fiction and non-fiction, and I’m especially interested in the often misdiagnosed chronic illnesses that predominantly affect women.
  • Negroland: Margo Jefferson. A memoir of life among upper-class black Americans in Chicago, ‘a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.’ This has been recommended everywhere, plus I’m fascinated by a memoir that deals with this often-forgotten group.
  • How To Survive A Plague: David France. The history of a grassroots movement of activists who halted the AIDS epidemic, inspired by France’s documentary. This was shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize in 2017, and I’m fascinated by the idea of a history of medical activism.
  • Heads of the Colored People: Nafissa Thompson-Spires. Electric Literature says that ‘Nafissa Thompson-Spires brings to life a funeral singer, a suicidal girl, and middle-class mothers in this debut [short story] collection.’ I love ultra-contemporary short stories, and this comes recommended by George Saunders.
  • An American Marriage: Tayari Jones. ‘Newlyweds, Celestial and Roy, are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South… [when] Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit.’ [author’s website] Again, I’ve been hearing about this everywhere, and the prose looks incredible.
  • Educated: Tara Westover. The Guardian calls this ‘a coming-of-age memoir that chronicles a young woman’s efforts to study her way out of a tough childhood in Idaho’; my attention was caught by the first line of the blurb, ‘Tara Westover was seventeen when she first set foot in a classroom.’ As an historian of education, I have to read this, and embarrassingly, have been talking so much about it that several of the people I’ve ‘recommended’ it to have got round to reading it before I have!
  • The Growing Season: Helen Sedgwick. It’s the one sentence pitch: set in a world where anyone can now have a baby through the use of a pouch, the book explores how this might affect gender relations. I had mixed feelings about Sedgwick’s debut The Comet Seekers, which featured in my last 20 Books of Summer, but have high hopes for this one.
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies: John Boyne. This follows the story of Irishman Cyril Avery from 1940s to the present day, cut adrift in the world and trying to work out where he belongs. I wasn’t really up for reading another doorstopper about historical gay oppression, but the universally rapturous reviews have persuaded me to give this a go.
  • Let Go My Hand: Edward Docx. Larry Lasker is terminally ill. He decides that he has to make things right with his three sons on a road trip across Europe. I heard Docx read an extract of this while he was still writing it and found it hilarious, though what I remember doesn’t connect at all with the blurb!
  • Exit West: Mohsin Hamid. ‘In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet… [when] familiar streets [turn] into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price.’ [Goodreads] I like the promise of exploring questions of migration through a speculative conceit, and as I’ve already read 4 out of 6 of the 2017 Booker shortlist, I’m tempted to read this one as well.
  • Places I Stopped on the Way Home: Meg Fee. ‘A beautiful memoir from an exciting young writer, Meg Fee, on finding her way in New York City.’ [Waterstones.] I heard about this on Naomi’s blog, and I’m keen to read writing by women finding their way in their lives at the moment.
  • Built: Roma Agrawal. ‘A chatty unravelling of surprising stories behind our built environment by the engineer and campaigner for women in engineering.’ [Guardian.] After listening to my friend (who’s a structural engineer) talk about her job, I’ve realised that I’m much more interested in how buildings are put together than I thought I was.
  • Painter To The King: Amy Sackville. ‘This is a portrait of Diego Velzquez, from his arrival at the court of King Philip IV of Spain, to his death 38 years and scores of paintings later.’ [Google Books] I loved loved loved Sackville’s debut, The Still Pointand liked her second novel, Orkney, very much, so this is a must-read for me.
  • Rosewater: Tade Thompson. The start of a SF trilogy set in a futuristic Nigeria, this focuses on government agency worker Kaaro, who defies his bosses to investigate an alien entity that has formed a biodome under his city. While I don’t really get on with Nnedi Okorafor’s writing, her novels have inspired me to read more Afrofuturism, and this sounded fascinating.
  • Tiger, TigerJohanna Skibsrud. A Canadian short story collection that touches on a number of speculative themes, including a scientist trying to resurrect an extinct tiger, futuristic museums and inhuman memories. I heard about it on the other Naomi’s blog, Consumed By Ink.
  • The Trauma CleanerSarah Krasnostein. The story of an Australian trans woman who has been a sex worker, drag queen, businesswoman and spouse, and has now become a ‘trauma cleaner’. On my TBR list since I read Elle’s review.
  • Sophia of Silicon Valley: Anna Yen. ‘A comical novel about one woman’s journey storming the corridors of geek power’ [author’s website], this has been compared to The Devil Wears Prada. Sounds like a bit of a a guilty pleasure, and I love the cover.
  • RainbirdsClarissa Goenawan. I highlighted this as one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018. Ren Ishida has almost finished his degree at Keio University in Tokyo when he hears that his sister Keiko has been stabbed to death in a small town outside the city. Heading to Keiko’s home, he finds himself becoming increasingly involved in the mysterious life she left behind.
  • ForwardLisa Maas. A graphic novel about two lesbians dealing with the end of a relationship. I have only ever read one graphic novel, for 20 Books of Summer 2016 (Evie Wyld’s Everything Is Teethwhich I loved) so here continues my very slow education.

The statistics: As for 20 Books of Summer 2017, 50% of my books are by people of colour, to help me meet my 2018 goals. 30% are by men, a figure that lines right up with my normal reading habits. And 35% are non-fiction, largely reflecting my growing interest in memoir.

Bookworm, or I Wish I’d Written This

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Everyone’s been raving about Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, so I feel like I’m already late to the party, even though it was only published a couple of months ago. But anybody who’s not read this yet: I’m here to tell you that it lives up to expectations. Mangan’s tour through the books she read in her childhood and adolescence is absorbing not just because it brings back fond memories of books you’d forgotten you’d ever read (for me: Thimble Summer; Jill’s Gymkhana; Z for Zachariah; Fireweed), but because it somehow recaptures what it felt like to be so transported by a book that you literally didn’t hear the sounds of the outside world. Like Mangan, this got me into trouble as a child; I was once so enraptured by reading Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes at a hellish summer activity holiday that I didn’t hear multiple commands from our bullying course instructor, who was not impressed by my explanation that I hadn’t, in fact, been deliberately ignoring her.

I came for the books but I was just as impressed with Mangan’s loving caricatures of herself and her family. I find it very difficult to come across books that I think are genuinely funny without becoming uncomfortable, repetitive or over-laboured, and Mangan hits the nail right on the head. From her mother, a practical GP who has no time for reading and ‘had gone back to work within ten minutes of giving birth (“Stitch me up! Let’s get on!)’ to her book-buying but very quiet father (‘a man who spoke only when directly addressed and last initiated a conversation in nineteen sixty-NEVER’) to her scientific sister, who was unimpressed by What Katy Did (‘when she reached the end of Coolidge’s tale, she hurled it across the room shouting “Katy did nothing!” before stalking off to finish the kit car she was coding an automated build for behind the sofa.’ Mangan’s portrait of her own child self is equally hilarious, but also thought-provoking: ‘I was about to start school. This is not a good time for a misanthropic, introvert bookworm.’ Quoting Florence King, she writes: ‘Until I began school, I hadn’t realised I was a child. I thought I was just short.’

In many ways, Mangan and I were clearly quite different children. Like Mangan, I spent half of my time reading, sitting next to our Aga in the imaginatively-named ‘Aga chair’, but unlike Mangan, I spent the other half of my time roaming as far away from the house as I could get. In most of the photographs of me after I learned to walk, I’m running away from my parents towards something in the distance (forest; sea; dog). So Mangan’s love of home and the indoors above all else wasn’t the same for me. However, our feelings about school are obviously shared. We also seem to have read almost all the same books, although I often disagreed with her assessments of them – which didn’t affect my enjoyment of Bookworm in the slightest. I dutifully read all the Narnia books as a child but never really liked them, and hate them as an adult, while I was also pretty blind to the charms of The Railway Children (give me the Psammead or the Would-be-Goods), The Secret Garden (would rather read A Little Princess) or even Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (I still don’t like weird deviations from reality). While I adored Tom’s Midnight Garden – which I encountered, like many other books, through the BBC’s Jackanory – I loved Charlotte Sometimes and Marianne Dreams, two other weird children’s novels from the same generation, even more. And while I was happy to see Mangan criticise the sentimentality of Anne of Green Gables, I can’t agree that it reads better if you’re an adult – and would like to give her the Emily of New Moon series (or Anne with an E on Netflix).

The book also sparked memories of lesser-known novels that are unsurprisingly not mentioned in Bookworm but which were so important in my childhood. Leaving aside everything I read in the US for now, does anyone else remember The Mennyms, a creepily disturbing series about a household of living rag dolls who have to somehow survive in a world made for humans? Or Vlad the Drac (Jackanory again), a not-very-well-written series about a miniature vegetarian vampire? Or Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands in the Sky, a children’s SF novel about life on a space station? Or John Christopher’s bizarre The Lotus Caves, set on the moon? Or L.J. Smith’s The Forbidden Game trilogy, which starts with an evil board game and proceeds with impeccable story structure? Or – more loved than any of the others – Lionel Davidson’s eerie and unforgettable Under Plum Lake? 

Finally (and I could write three times as much about this book) I liked how Mangan dealt with the line between fantasy and reality in children’s literature. The belief that children, even very young children, absorb what they read uncritically has led to lots of very bad takes on what should and shouldn’t be in children’s books. Mangan quite rightly recognises that child (and adult) readers often skip over this line several times in the course of reading a single text, and that simple belief in the complete truth of a book is unlikely even for very young readers. She writes so well about one of my most-loved picture books, John Burningham’s Come Away From The Water, Shirley, which ‘juxtaposes imagination and reality without comment.’ As a child, I believed this book had been my grandmother’s when she was young (it obviously wasn’t as it was first published in 1977 – I suspect it was in fact a gift from my grandmother) and that it was somehow about her (her name was Shirley). It took me a long time to disentangle what was really going on with the book, but at no point did I believe the book was ‘true’ in the same way as other stories about my grandmother were true, even though I didn’t think it was completely ‘made-up’ either.

What was harder to deal with was the idea that books could talk to each other. As a child, I read all of the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace (a tremendously popular US series about growing up in early twentieth-century Minnesota) in which the heroine, Betsy, has brown braids and ‘teeth that were slightly parted in the middle’. As a seven-year-old, I became very confused when I read another book (I can’t remember what it was) in which the main character wishes she could have teeth parted in the middle ‘just like Betsy’s from Betsy-Tacy‘. But how did the books know about each other? I knew that Betsy was made up, so why was she mentioned in another book? HOW HAD THIS HAPPENED?

I’ve already written quite enough about Bookworm, and about childhood reading in general, so I’ll stop here, but I’d love to hear about others’ thoughts on this book, or on books read in childhood. What were your favourites? Did they match up with Mangan’s? Have you re-read books you hated as a child that you now love – or books you loved that you now can’t stand? What book did you love that nobody else has ever heard of?

Reading round-up, April into May 2018

April was largely taken up with the Women’s Prize For Fiction longlist and the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, but I’ve started to catch up with some other things as we move into May.

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I highlighted You Think It, I’ll Say It as one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, and I’m pleased to say that it didn’t disappoint. I’m a big Curtis Sittenfeld fan, though for me, nothing she’s written has ever quite beaten her debut, Prepa boarding-school expose that features a narrator who’s not so much unreliable as completely impossible to see past. Sittenfeld’s familiar strengths and weaknesses are on display in You Think It, I’ll Say It, her first short story collection. As this Independent review points out, Sittenfeld’s scope can sometimes feel a little too narrow, confined to white middle-class American men and women living comfortable and predictable lives. And yet, it’s from this that I think her greatest strengths emerge: her utter confidence in pinpointing the exact details of such lives, and saying the unspoken things that everybody else is thinking. But because, perhaps, of this familiar subject-matter, for me these stories worked best when they were least neat.

I wasn’t surprised to love ‘The Nominee’, a short story about Hillary Clinton that Sittenfeld is developing into a full-length book. Having just re-read American Wife, Sittenfeld’s novel about the life of a fictionalised version of Laura Bush, Alice Blackwell, it was fun to see Sittenfeld enter the psyche of a very different woman experiencing some of the same pressures as she thinks back on her own tenure as First Lady. The childhood taunt that follows this unnamed character – ‘You’re awfully opinionated for a girl’ – is certainly not something that would trouble Alice Blackwell, who wrestles with the opposite problem; has she blended far too seamlessly into other people’s lives? While the ending of this story isn’t as open as some of the others in the collection, I still found it satisfying without being too tidy, perhaps especially because I know there’s more to come. On the other hand, ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’ and ‘Gender Studies’ both pull off loose, unresolved conclusions, and are the better for it.

This was less so for some of the other stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It. Two stories have twists in the middle – ‘Plausible Deniability’ and ‘The Prairie Wife’ – and in both cases, I guessed the twist almost immediately. This didn’t necessarily ruin the stories, but I found both of them less satisfying than I would have done otherwise. Two stories on motherhood, ‘Bad Latch’ and ‘Off the Record’, are refreshing for different reasons – ‘Bad Latch’ resists the temptation to set mothers, and different styles of parenting, up against each other, while ‘Off the Record’ is a rare glimpse into the pleasures as well as the hardships of being a single mother – but both are tied off too tightly to be especially thought-provoking.

Apart from ‘The Nominee’, the two stories that seemed to me to have the most depth and promise were ‘Vox Clamantis in Deserto’ [‘the voice of one crying out in the desert’] and ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’. The first deals with three college friends whose lives become linked together in unexpected ways; the second with the micro-politics of a group of volunteers running a children’s group at a shelter for women who’ve experienced domestic abuse. ‘Vox Clamantis in Deserto’ reminded me a little of Prep – and indeed is partly set at a prestigious prep school – while ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’ took me back to my own experiences of working and volunteering with children, although the vast majority of the other staff and volunteers in my organisation were wonderful, and things certainly never turned as nasty as they do here. I did wonder why Frances, the narrator of ‘Volunteers Are Shining Stars’, had OCD – it seemed to have been introduced to create some artificial conflict, and I thought Sittenfeld could have told essentially the same story without this prop. However, it was one of the stories in the collection that niggled at me most insistently, and hence became the most memorable.

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Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel, In Our Mad and Furious City, which is narrated by five different characters living on a north London housing estate, has already received a fair amount of advance praise. Gunaratne interweaves three stories of protest, violence, terrorism and the rejection of terrorism over the course of two generations. Elderly West Indian immigrant Nelson remembers his teenage involvement in the black community’s protests against the fascism personified by Oswald Mosley. Irish Catholic Caroline recalls how her family became both victims and perpetrators of the sectarian violence in Ireland during the Troubles. Meanwhile, the book’s three teenage narrators, Caroline’s son Ardan, Nelson’s son Selvon, and Yusuf, a Muslim whose family are originally from Pakistan, demonstrate solidarity across racial lines while they court trouble of their own.

In Our Mad and Furious City is partly a victim of its own ambition. Its structure is over-complicated: five voices, three parts, each divided into sub-parts, with two narrators – Nelson and Caroline – that switch between the far past and the present – it took me almost half the novel simply to work out the allegiances and interconnections I’ve summarised above. This wasn’t helped by the fact that I frequently mixed up Ardan, Selvon and Yusuf’s narratives, all characterised by the same repetition of street slang (‘ennet’, ‘fam’, ‘blood’), although, to be fair to Gunaratne, he does draw out differences between his characters’ voices as well (Selvon’s fond of saying ‘kiss my teeth’; Ardan is noticeably less confident; Yusuf uses more sophisticated sentence structure.) For this reason, I found the voices of the older generation more compelling and distinctive.   Gunaratne also hammers too hard on the ‘dangerous volatile seething tinderbox’ language that I’ve seen a number of other writers use when writing about this side of London, especially in the largely unnecessary prologue and epilogue. The novel tells us too much about what it already effectively shows, reminding me strongly of Sunil Yapa’s similarly good but flawed debut Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size of A Fist.

But at the heart of In Our Mad And Furious City, away from the noise and the familiar story beats, are quieter scenes that will repay re-reading and re-inhabiting. Timid Ardan comes into his own for one glorious moment when he beats another boy in an improvisational grime music battle while they ride on the top deck of a bus. Swaggering Seldon carefully mixes salve for his father’s swollen and painful feet and cleans them carefully with a cloth, a weekly ritual. Caroline remembers her own youth in Ireland, and the moment she realised that some members of her family were involved in the IRA. Nelson thinks back to his own teenage years, proud to be part of a resistance movement but increasingly fearful for his own personal safety, as he hears the beats of his community’s music antagonising their racist opponents. I wished that Gunaratne, obviously such a talented writer, had spent more time with his characters in moments like this, and less time telling us how everything is about to erupt.

I received a free copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

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I’ve also recently read Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, which I loved, and which deserves a full review of its own, and relished three re-reads: Sarah Hall’s magnificent The Carhullan Army, Naomi Alderman’s thought-provoking, if uneven, The Lessons and Sarah Waters’s  lesbian classic, Fingersmith. I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, an incredibly well-written but frustratingly clinical zombie apocalypse novel, and Xiaolu Guo’s mesmerising memoir, Once Upon A Time in the East, which was shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Rathbones Folio Prize. After being disappointed by her novels, especially I Am China, I’m finding this riveting.

What spring reading have you been doing?

 

The Reread Project, 2018

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Two years ago, I declared my intention to re-read classic books I’d hated as a child or teenager and see if I’d changed my mind. Unfortunately, this project didn’t get very far at the time: I only re-read one book, Harper Lee’s To Kill A MockingbirdTherefore, I’m going to try again in 2018, starting with these five titles:

  1. Alice Walker, The Color Purple
  2. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
  3. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
  4. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles
  5. David Almond, Skellig

It’s interesting to note that two of these titles (Walker and Hardy) were books that I studied for English Literature A Level, and another two (Bronte and Atwood) were books that were often set for A Level at the time I was studying, and hence books that I felt I ought to have read. Similarly, Almond, which I read at a much younger age, was forced upon me because it had won the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year and the Carnegie Medal for 1998. It is now considered a children’s classic.

Did you love or hate any of these books as a child or teenager? Have you re-read them since?