Back to school, back to work, back to reading amidst all the glorious bookshelves. Here are some to inspire you, including my favourite house ever, built specifically around the owners’ book collection. Who wouldn’t commission that, if they had the money?
I’ve finished a few books lately which left me intrigued but unsure of my own feelings about them. While I cannot say I disliked them, I’m not quite sure I would say that I liked them either. And if I were to reread them, it would be not so much out of love for the book, but because I want to see if I can understand what the author is trying to achieve the second time around.
In conclusion, these are books that I admire for what they are attempting to do, but I’m not quite sure they have succeeded in doing it for this particular reader. In some cases, I have to admit that I haven’t got a clue if I am interpreting them correctly at all. Not that it matters.
Michael Redhill: Bellevue Square
The book starts out conventionally enough, almost like a thriller. Jean Mason is a bookshop owner in downtown Toronto, happily married (although there are indications that there is sourness beneath the bliss), mother of two kids. When customers start telling her that she seems to have a doppelgänger who is wandering around the Kensington Market area, she has to try and find out more. She starts a stakeout in Bellevue Square, and although she never catches a glimpse of her alter ego, who is supposedly called Ingrid, she soon befriends all of the eccentric characters, scam artists, homeless people, druggies and so on that populate the area.
Jean befriends Katerina, a waitress at a churros shop, who seems to have a close, but not always friendly relationship with the elusive Ingrid. Then Katerina is found dead and Jean begins to wonder if Ingrid killed her. Up to this point, you could visualise this as a Hitchcock film, following Jean’s desperate attempt to prove that she is not the murderer even when all fingers are pointing accusingly at her.
But the book veers into unpredictable territory here. We discover that Jean has a troubled background and mental health issues, and we start to wonder just what is real and what is fantasy. Of course, the theme of the ‘doppelgänger’ as an evil twin or the darker side of the same person is very well established in literature (A Tale of Two Cities, Dostoevsky’s TheDouble, Jekyll and Hyde, and of course Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James have eerie ghost stories about doubles). But it gets even more complicated and meta, with past tragedies resurfacing and pseudonyms appearing for Ingrid which indicate that she might be an alter ego for the author.
So I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret this, but quite enjoyed the journey (and the description of a certain part of Toronto). Redhill is planning a triptych of novels entitled Modern Ghosts, of which this is the first, and the term ‘ghosts’ fits in very well with what Poe and James were doing.
Rachel Cusk: Kudos
I’ve been fascinated by Cusk’s trilogy, which started with a Greek Odyssey in Outline, turned into a London obsession with property prices in Transit, and now concludes with a conference or literary festival being held someplace that could be Sicily or Portugal. As usual, her protagonist Faye is such a good listener that she almost disappears from the narrative. This culminates in a very funny moment when she is being interviewed by a series of journalists, who all end up talking more about themselves than trying to find out anything about her or her work.
This final volume is more combative and political in tone. There are much sharper observations about parenting, which were almost curiously absent from the first two books. There is a particularly touching scene, which the author handles almost in passing, where Faye admits that her son often wished he could belong to another family when he was younger. Above all, however, it’s quite a battle of the sexes which emerges here, all the more ferocious because it is not explicitly endorsed by the narrator, merely expressed by other women she encounters.
I quickly came to see… that in fact there was nothing worse than to be an average white male of average talents and intelligence: even the most oppressed housewife… is close to the drama and poetry of life than he is, because as Louise Bourgeois shows us she is capable at least of holding more than one perspective. And it was true.. that a number of girls were achieving academic success and cultivating professional ambitions, to the extent that people had begun to feel sorry for these average boys and to worry that their feelings were being hurt. Yet, if you looked only a little way ahead, … you could see that the girls’ ambitions led nowhere, like the roads you often find yourself on in this country, that start off new and wide and smooth and then simply stop in the middle of nowhere, because the government ran out of money to finish building them
Rachel Cusk: Kudos, p. 192.
I loved the way the book incites me to think and the very vivid vignettes of encounters – as I said before, I find it great anthropological material, but I have my doubts about how it all hangs together and cannot help wondering if it’s just lazy editing by the author herself. (I felt there was more of a pattern to Tokarczuk’s Flights, in case you were wondering). As for the ending – that was so viscerally unpleasant, it very nearly spoilt the whole trilogy for me (although it fits in well with the Battle of the Sexes idea).
Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett: Naked Men
Well, if you want a full-on battle between the sexes and a bit of a reversal of roles, then this book is for you! It’s about middle-aged women who are wealthy enough to pay for male escorts and about men who in the austerity economy of Spain are taking on jobs as strippers and escorts.
Irene is an odd, cold fish, a Daddy’s girl who has obediently taken over the helm at her father’s company after his death, and married for comfort and business sense rather than for passion. When her husband leaves her for a younger woman, she doesn’t really go off the rails. Or at least not at first. Because she never felt much passion, she doesn’t feel much despair, more of a wounded ego and not wanting to give her so-called the satisfaction of gossiping about her. Meanwhile, Javier is a bit of a loser, an unemployed supply teacher with ideals that fit better into his vast collection of books rather than real life. This mismatched pair will eventually get together, but it takes far too long to get to that point, and the ending is far too abrupt and rushed.
Although the book had some interesting things to say about social class and gender differences, and although it was quite funny in parts (that passage about moving all of Javier’s books!), it felt like 90% build-up, 10% story and then only 0.0001% denouement. And, despite the extensive build-up, the psychological motivation for what happens at the end still seemed wrong. There was also the odd head-hopping that occurs throughout the book – which keeps you on your toes, as you have to figure out who is thinking that next paragraph in a scene of dialogue. I also have to admit that I was far more interested in the secondary characters, Javier’s down-to-earth friend Ivan and Irene’s more uninhibited friend Genoveva.
This past week I’ve had to dig out our duvets once more, but let’s pretend that we can live outside forever in the Northern hemisphere. Maybe, in a few years, we will, courtesy of climate change… Additional bonus this time: accents in my favourite colour, turquoise-blue.
I was offline while visiting the city of my childhood, Vienna, and introducing my own children to the delights of Wiener Schnitzel (received with enthusiasm), Sachertorte (even more enthusiasm) and Apfelstrudel (less so). There were fewer old classmates at the school anniversary than I expected, but it was nevertheless exciting to be back. Missed flight on the way out, additional expenses, lack of internet access, endless construction sites and tired feet (which led to complaining children) did not dampen my ardour. I’ve written about my love for Vienna before, which even extends to its crime fiction.
And yet… I was reminded how difficult it is to recreate the city that once meant so much to you. That city is lost forever, no matter how hard you try to fit the sparkling fragments together. Here is something I wrote a while back about it.
I started musing how my whole life seems to consist of being really happy in some wonderful places – and then having to tear myself away from them. I love exploring new places but I also like settling in, making those places my own, getting that intimate connection with them that can only come from repetition and routine. When it’s time to move on, I am excited about the new adventures I will have, but I am also sad to leave a certain part of myself behind. With each encounter with a different country and culture, I become richer in experience, but somehow also poorer when I leave. Does anybody else feel like that?
It’s difficult to explain – but it’s like my soul has been bereft to a certain extent. I keep the experience locked up somewhere tight within and remember it with such delight from time to time. But the experience is unrepeatable. Even if I go back with the best of good intentions to that country, it will never feel the same again. If you go back as a tourist to a country where you were once resident, it can be exhilarating as long as you don’t think about it too closely. Or you can feel shut out, a stranger once more. It will certainly never again feel like home.
I was very lucky a few years ago to return for a couple of months to Vienna in almost exactly the same conditions I had lived there before during my childhood. I stayed with a friend who had known me since I was three, she lived just a few streets down from where I had grown up. Vienna itself is a city that changes subtly rather than rapidly, so I found myself remembering even the tram routes and little shops. I met up with old friends and slipped easily into dialect. And yet… I am not that same person, I am not the same age, I do not have that same attitude and innocence. Vienna was lovely, welcoming, filled with nostalgia for me… All the externals were right, but it was no longer home.
People do ask me: ‘Don’t you feel bad about having no place to call home?’ and I often laugh it off, saying: ‘But I feel at home anywhere!’ And I certainly do believe that and consider myself very fortunate to have been able to call so many beautiful places home. (Also, any place that is home becomes beautiful, even if it didn’t look so promising to start off with.)
But sometimes I do wonder if, by leaving little chunks of my heart in so many different places, I will end up in smithereens. And why I couldn’t spend more time in those places where I have been happiest.
What place do you call home? Do you feel you can repeat your experience of living in a certain place, or is it best to just wallow in unfulfilled nostalgia?
Call it a remnant of childhood (or habit resulting from protracted studies, plus a few years in academia, or living in France with their emphasis on la rentrée, plus now working in a university environment), but I always feel that September is the month for new notebooks, clean sheets and resolutions. Most of my resolutions are reading and writing related, with a few general lifestyle issues throwing in for balance.
Rein in my social media, blogging, lit mag and reviewing activity. It’s not a question of not enjoying it, but it’s just not sustainable on top of a full-time job, two children, a long commute and my own writing ambitions. I’ve been reviewing for Crime Fiction Lover for 6 years now, and it will soon be a year since I got involved with Asymptote. I want to continue my collaboration, but not to the point where it starts interfering with my health. If I spread myself too thinly, I will end up not pleasing anyone!
Accept fewer books for review and focus instead on those I really want to read, and on topics I feel strongly about (in a ‘spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ kind of way), for example my much neglected #EU27Project.
Stop going to so many events. I had a sobering moment when I put together a list of all my income and outgoings for the solicitor last week and realised that I have plenty of unavoidable expenses already with household bills, Council Tax, car costs and children’s school-related expenses. No need to live beyond my means quite so extravagantly. One event every month or two might be just about reasonable, but over the next month I have 8 planned, plus a trip to Vienna. Surely a little excessive!
Stop buying so many books, for the same reason as above. There are plenty of books on my shelves still clamouring to be read. I can still get plenty of interesting books from the library, as well as all the review copies I receive. I do not have to read every single book every single person I ever admired ever recommended.
Start writing new things (perhaps do that on the train instead of going through my Twitter feed) and start submitting once more, but more systematically this time.
Put together the manuscript for my poetry collection (chapbook or whatever you wish to call it) and start looking for a publisher.
Exercise more regularly, as my old bones are getting creaky and I want to be able to enjoy food instead of starving myself. A combination of Nordic walking, Tai Chi, contemporary dance and abdominal exercises in front of the telly should do the trick (I get easily bored in a gym).
Set myself some checkpoints to see if I’m sticking to these goals. Revisit this post in early December and see what progress I’ve made.
One day, when I forget just how cold it gets in the conservatory in winter and how boiling in the summer, and if I will still have a garden, I will also have the perfect little garden shed for my creative endeavours.