A week of full house and survival mode: my parents coming to visit, yet another day off school for the children, lots of admin to do, birthday celebrations to organise and celebrate (no less than three in 2 weeks).
So don’t expect any coherent blog posts from me this week. Instead, here are some who can speak much prettier than me:
Children always reinterpret their parents’ sense of obligation as compulsion. It’s not They did it for me but They did it because they wanted to. She wanted to bake that bread; you told those bedtime stories every night, really, for yourself. There’d be no surviving without that move, the debt guilt would be too great to shoulder. In order to supply the unique amount of care that children demand, we have to enter into a contract in amnesia where neither side is entirely honest about the costs. If we ever totted up the debt, we would be unable to bear it. (Adam Gopnik)
When we met, you told me The Story of Your Life. I told you about My Writer’s Beginnings, about Why I Write, and How Literature Saved My Life. You said you supported Women Writers at Work and Writing a Woman’s Life. We discussed Aspects of the Novel. Had I finally found the partner who fit into my Narrative Design? Or would you be just another man who Eats, Shoots, and Leaves? (Audrey Ferber punning with book titles)
It’s pleasant and rewarding to tell our acquaintances that the bardic spirit seized us on Friday at 2:45 p.m. and began whispering mysterious secrets in our ear with such ardor that we scarcely had time to take them down. But at home, behind closed doors, they assiduously corrected, crossed out, and revised those otherworldly utterances. Spirits are fine and dandy, but even poetry has its prosaic side. Let’s take the wings off and try writing on foot, shall we? (Wislawa Szymborska)
One more thing to think about when putting a novel together: make it hard. Set your sights on something that you aren’t quite capable of doing, whether artistically, emotionally or intellectually. You can also go for broke and take on all three. I raise the bar with every book I write, making sure I’m doing something that is uncomfortably beyond what I can manage. It’s the only way I know to improve over time… (Ann Patchett)
“People are constantly asking me, how do you do it all? And I usually just smile and say like, “I’m really organized.” Or if I’m feeling slightly kindly, I say, “I have a lot of help.”
And those things are true. But they also are not true . . .
How do you do it all? The answer is this: I don’t. Whenever you see me somewhere succeeding in one area of my life, that almost certainly means I am failing in another . . . That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil . . . You never feel a hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost.
My natural preference in fiction is for first or third person point of views, limited but allowing you to build up quite an in-depth picture of your narrator (and even seem some of their own blind spots). If you were to ask me ‘in the abstract’, without any examples, I would say that I don’t like books where the author can hop from one head into another, emit omniscient asides and foreshadow like billy-ho with complete nonchalance. It feels like lazy writing, I’d tell myself, it interrupts the flow and confuses me.
Yet here I am about to extol the virtues of two books which do precisely that. Which goes to show that rules are made to be broken and that I can be won over to just about anything by good writing.
Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters
This is marketed as a crime thriller, but, as is so frequently the case with Lauren Beukes, it defies any genre description. It has all the elements of a police procedural, albeit one of unnerving grittiness and despair, but also swerves into YA, horror and fantasy territory. All areas I usually stay away from, but in Beukes’ wildly inventive mind and confident hands, it works. She moves effortlessly from one interpretation of events to another, equally pitch-perfect as a teenager, a stressed female officer, a homeless drifter or journalist despising himself for writing nothing better than lists of Top Tens for second-rate websites, all in a lively, exuberant language on the brink of change.
This is a story revealing all our anxieties about the digital age and urban decay. It’s set in the almost post-apocalyptic landscape of Detroit, now fallen victim to fans of ruin porn and graffiti, hipsters trying to ‘get’ the edginess of the city and to further their careers, scavengers making their way into repossessed houses.
Detective Gabi Vesado has seen a lot of bodies in her time with the Detroit police force, even children’s bodies, but this one is shocking even by her standards. A boy cut in half, with deer legs somehow fused to him. Unfortunately, this is but the start of a sinister series of killings, all arranged artistically, as if to mimic contemporary art installations. Beukes is wonderful at mocking the pretensions of much modern art, but she also takes us into the murderer’s mind – which, disconcertingly, is the mind of an artist taken to extreme. An obsession with beauty and creating new paradigms, opening the door to a new consciousness, which sometimes makes him the most relatable character in the book (at least, to a writer/artist/creative person). He may be a monster, but he’s a broken one (I never thought I’d say this about a serial killer).
There are plenty more quirky and very well-drawn characters: Gabi’s teenage daughter Layla, who engages in dangerous games of online pedophile baiting with her friend Cas; Cas herself, who seems cynical beyond her years, perhaps discussing a much deeper vulnerability; the failed journalist Jonno who dreams of going viral with his online videos, helped by his DJ girlfriend with the wild dreadlocks; and homeless TK, who only wants to survive, but cannot sit by idly while his friend is being hurt. Each of these (and a few others I’m not mentioning here for lack of space) have a complete back story, although most of it remains hidden from us like an iceberg.
I’m a little tired of the serial killer trop, or of graphic descriptions of violence (although, to be fair, in this book it is more about the reaction of the people who get to see the violence), but this book is about so much more than that. Beukes almost crams in too much: psychology of teens and of loners, social commentary about poverty and abandonment of society’s most fragile members, the Internet as a place we can project the myths we tell about ourselves, but also a place where our own stories can be used against us, herd instinct and our love of conspiracy theories, media frenzy about the more sensationalist aspects of crime. Throughout, the author transports us into a vivid yet surreal world, a world of nightmares and hallucinations, where we lose the ability to distinguish fact from fiction.
Just as an aside: I’ve included all three covers for the book – let me know which one you prefer. I think the South African one is the most beautiful, though perhaps a bit too explicit.
Ann Patchett: Bel Canto
The blurb itself promises an unusual book, difficult to pin down in terms of degree of seriousness:
In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. His hosts hope that Mr. Hosokawa can be persuaded to build a factory in their Third World backwater. Alas, in the opening sequence, just as the accompanist kisses the soprano, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.
In this house under siege – and the siege extends to weeks rather than days – a kind of truce develops and the most unlikely of love stories spring up, while hope and despair alternate in rapid succession. Ann Patchett is a delightful mix of 19th century elegance and 21st century knowingness in this book. I loved her brand of suave humour, gracious omniscience and flitting around from one character to another, observing all human foibles but also all human aspiration for something grander, more ennobling – such as music. The opera singer, the Japanese industrialist, the talented translator, the young terrorists who have just left their native village, the idealistic priest, the hardened paramilitary leader who still has a heart hidden somewhere: these are not stereotypes, but beautifully rounded characters described with tenderness but also irony. This ‘mature and knowing narrator’ POV, filled with sly observations, reminds me of Jane Austen. Patchett has an uncanny ability to describe someone (and their way of thinking) in just a few sentences.
The international negotiator, Messner: ‘The Swiss never take sides. We are only on the side of the Swiss.’
The doctor who tries not to draw attention to himself and his profession: ‘The conclusion was that no doctors were present. But that wasn’t true. Dr. Gomez was lying in the back… and his wife was stabbing him sharply in the ribs with two red lacquered fingernails. He had given up his practice years ago to become a hospital administrator. When was the last time he had sewn a man up?.. He was probably no more qualified to do a decent job than his wife, who at least kept a canvas of petit point going all the time. Without taking a single stitch he saw how the whole thing would unravel: there would be an infection, certainly; they would not bring in the necessary antibiotics; later the wound would have to opened, drained, resewn… It would not go well. People would blame him.’
The kitchen scene of cooking coq sans vin, without allowing the hostages access to knives, is one of the funniest scenes:
Thibault, the French ambassador, one of the few among the hostages who knows how to cook, is manning the kitchen. He is trying to show the terrorists how to peel an aubergine but has forgotten that he is not allowed to handle knives. (Apologies for hte choppiness and lack of clarity in what follows: I’m skipping big chunks of text here in an effort to convey the flavour of the scene).
Thibault did not understand what he had done. He thought at first Beatriz [one of the captors] was angry that he had corrected the boy on his peeling, He thought the problem was with the eggplant, and so he laid the eggplant down first and then the knife. […]
‘Go ahead,’ Ishmael said, taking out his own gun and pointing it at the Ambassador. ‘I’ll shoot you, too, if I have to. Show me how to peel an eggplant, I’ve shot men over less than an eggplant.’ […]
What would Edith say when she heard he had been shot over an eggplant or turning on the television? If he was going to die he had hoped for a little bit of honor in his death.
‘Well,’ Ruben said, wiping his face with a dishtowel. ‘Nothing around here is a small event.’ […]
‘No one is leaving! Dinner for fifty-eight, is that what they expect? I will not lose one pair of hands, even if the hands belong to the very valuable translator… May I inquire as to the state of the onions or will you threaten to shoot me?’ […]
‘Why does he get to cook the onions?’ Beatriz said. ‘They’re my onions. And I won’t wash the chickens because that does not involve a knife. I was only sent in here to work the knives.’
There are too many new-to-me authors that I’ve discovered this year. They’ve all brought me surprise and joy: it would be unfair to rank them. However, the books on the list below did make me want to seek out everything else their authors have ever written.
Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters (review to follow shortly)
It’s very simple: for December, I’ve resolved to read only books by women authors. This did not start out as an intentional challenge. In fact, the first book I finished in December (which I had started on the last weekend of November) was written by a man. It was Mark Edwards’ stalker thriller ‘Because She Loves Me’.
However, all of the books I had borrowed from the library or that were waiting patiently from me on my Netgalley shelf seemed to be by women writers – or at least the ones that were calling out to me: ‘Read me next! Me!’
So here are the books I have read, am reading and will be reading for this month.
Nina Stibbe: Man at the Helm – I opened this instead of another book and could not stop reading
Ann Patchett: Bel Canto – because I love her writing and I couldn’t resist the hook: ‘kidnappers storm an international gathering of opera lovers at the Vice President’s residence in a poor Latin American country’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah – because, given my cross-cultural experience and profession, everyone is surprised that I haven’t read it yet (and it does sound like the sort of thing I would enjoy)
Jacqueline Saphra: The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions – when I first started writing poetry again, the wonderful poet Naomi Shihab Nye said that my (very modest) efforts reminded her of Saphra’s work, so I’ve been reading her work ever since and finally bought the whole first collection
Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters – because Lauren is a life-force, unpredictable and irrepressible, and boy, can she write!
Katri Lipson: The Ice Cream Man – because it’s a Finnish author, although the action takes place largely in Czechoslovakia of the 1940s/50s.
Alison Mercer: After I Left You – because it’s been on my Netgalley shelf for far too long and Cleo recommends it
Lily King: Euphoria – because it’s about anthropologists in the field caught up in a pernicious love triangle (based on Margaret Mead, who is one of the main reasons I studied anthropology)
Look how many varied and wonderful women writers there are just in this small sample!
Am I being a little over-ambitious? Am I not making any allowances for spontaneity? Well, we shall have to wait and see whether the home-made plans bear any semblance to the end result. But I do know that I have plenty more women writers to choose from…
A while ago I happened to read a whole series of books about mothers. Since my return from holiday I seem to have been on a roll with books about marriages – I was going to say ‘difficult marriages’, but at least one of them is about a happy marriage… interrupted by death. Incidentally, it also seems to have been a bit of a catch-up with North American writers, as Anne Carson, Louise Penny and Maxime-Olivier Moutier are all Canadians, while two of the remaining authors are American.
Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The portrait of a 40 year marriage of true minds. Didion’s husband died of a heart-attack in 2003, and this is the searing memoir of her befuddlement, grief, sense of guilt and sheer madness of the year following her sudden loss. (At the same time, her daughter was in and out of hospital, in and out of a coma, so it was probably the hardest year of the writer’s life.) This may not be her most polished work stylistically, but it has a rawness and honesty about it which is very moving.
I’m not sure why this has been branded as pretentious or whining or self-pitying rants of a rich bitch. It shows how grief can drive us all mad, whether privileged or not, whether calm and collected or dramatic and hysterical. The author has also been accused of coldness, because she tries to present things in a detached way. This feels to me more like a deliberate strategy to remain calm, to try and understand, to analyse oneself. The polar vortex of memory that she tries to avoid by not going to places that were familiar to them: how can that be described as cold and unfeeling?
Anne Carson: The Beauty of the Husband
By contrast, Carson’s collection of poems all add up to an essay on beauty and truth, our search for perfection but our paradoxical human ability to put up with imperfection for a very long time. All in all, it presents the picture of a toxic marriage, a destructive relationship captured with true poetic flourish. Based on Keat’s assertion that beauty is truth, the poet then shows us just why the husband was anything but truthful, no matter how beautiful he was (and remained) in the eyes of the wronged wife.
Louise Penny: The Long Way Home
I’m already a confirmed Louise Penny fan, but this 10th book in the Armand Gamache/ Three Pines series is less crime fiction and more the story of a Quest: for a missing husband, for inspiration, for one’s true self, for the Holy Grail almost. I wrote a full review of it for Crime Fiction Lover, but from the perspective of marriage, it is the sad story of the dissolution of a loving long-term partnership when the insidious three-headed serpent of jealousy, envy and inadequacy makes its appearance. Clara and Peter Morrow are both artists, who met in college. Peter has always been the more successful artist with his carefully controlled, intricate paintings, while Clara was the wild and messy experimentalist. But when Clara’s star begins to rise, Peter finds it impossible to rejoice for her, as he becomes aware of his own artistic stagnation.
Louise Douglas: Your Beautiful Lies
Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strikes in Yorkshire in the 1980s, this is the story of Annie, a woman who is feeling trapped in a very correct but rather dry marriage of convenience, which has provided her with a comfortable lifestyle but has also isolated her from the rest of the community. When her old boyfriend (who had been convicted of manslaughter) is released from prison and shows up on her doorstep, trying to protest his innocence, she is at first reluctant to engage with him. But then she unravels rather spectacularly and becomes very reckless indeed… This book has an old-fashioned feel about it, as if it were set in the 1950s rather than the 1980s, and I struggled to empathise with Annie.
And, just in case you thought that only women can write about marriage, here is the most depressing one of all, written by a man but from a woman’s perspective.
Maxime-Olivier Moutier: Scellé plombé
The title roughly translates as ‘sealed with lead’, which was apparently an old method for food preservation – until the poisonous qualities of lead were discovered. This hints at the poisonous conjugal relationship and what an odd, unsettling story it is. The husband is struck by lightning on a golf course and is buried by his wife and children in secret. Told entirely from the point of view of the wife, but addressed to her husband in a tone designed to humiliate and provoke, we then discover the story of their marriage, the rising ennui, the many daily cruelties and sarcasms, the lack of communication, the secret lives each partner found refuge in. A chilling disregard for the children emerges from this novel: it appears it’s not the marriage, but the hearts themselves which have turned to lead.
Finally, I almost hesitate to include Ann Patchett’s ‘This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage’ in this post, not because of the word ‘happy’ in the title, but because this collection of essays is about so much more than marriage: it is about creativity, travelling, a beloved dog, a burgeoning interest in opera music, family, friendships and, above all, writing. It also talks about the author’s first marriage and divorce, which led to many years of avoiding commitment to her second husband. In her characteristic clear-eyed, fluid style, she describes the compassion and understanding that she developed for all women who suffered in their marriages, whether they were able to get away from them or not.
My mother had divorced my father when I was four. Two years later she remarried. My mother and stepfather spent the next twenty years trying to decide whether or not they should stay together. While growing up I had never faulted her for the divorce, but I hated what I thought was her weakness. My mother didn’t want to be wrong a second time. She wanted to believe in a person’s ability to change, and so she went back and back, every resolution broken by some long talk they had that made things suddenly clear for a while. I wanted her to make her decision and stick to it. In or out, I ultimately didn’t care, just make up your mind. But the mind isn’t so easily made up. My mother used to say the more lost you are, the later it got, the more you had invested in not being lost. That’s why people who are lost so often keep heading in the same direction. It took my own divorce to really understand… I understood how we long to believe in goodness, especially in the person we promised to love and honor. It isn’t just about them, it is how we want to see ourselves…