Nature saves us all: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun

Old Man of Hoy in Orkney Islands, from scotlandinfo.eu
Old Man of Hoy in Orkney Islands, from scotlandinfo.eu

Memoir is a genre that is not immediately appealing to me. Unless it’s a thoughtful autobiography of an artist or writer whom I admire, and therefore at least partly about the struggle of creativity, it just feels too self-indulgent or egocentric a project. So it’s a bit hit and miss whether I will enjoy reading one or not.

For instance, Romain Gary’s pseudo-memoir La promesse de l’aube was wonderful, even when I could see the ways in which the author was manipulating our emotions and exaggerating some scenes (or perhaps fictionalising them) for the maximum benefit and enjoyment of us readers. However,¬†Ariel Gore’s Atlas of the Human Heart infuriated me, and I don’t think it was because of a gender division of¬†the topics addressed, i.e. men go to war and are therefore interesting, while women drink and sleep around and are therefore dull. On the contrary, it’s usually the women I usually find more interesting, but not in that particular case. I think it was because the focus was not on the readers, but very much on the author/narrator.

Then there are the books which weave nature observations¬†and personal narrative, harking back to the great Romantic¬†tradition of philosophising about nature and how humans relate to it¬†(or how the urban environment encroaches upon it and changes us humans). This is where you might find¬†allusions whooshing over your head, but also¬†the occasional¬†tangential riffs and unusual¬†erudite connections¬†which will gladden your heart and make you feel¬†smart.¬†Two books which I heartily recommend in this respect are: Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in the English Weather.

outrunWhere does Amy Liptrot’s tale of alcoholism and life spinning out of control fit in? It’s a strange beast, straddling the two sub-genres – memoir of self-destruction and nature writing. After a hedonistic lifestyle in London, almost but never quite successful in finding work, housing, relationships, the authors spirals into alcoholism and ultimately finds redemption by returning to her home¬†in the wilderness and isolation¬†of the Orkneys. It was¬†largely the nature writing which appealed to me. Confessional writing is so prevalent nowadays and praised as ‘brave, raw, visceral’ and all those other adjectives, but it can¬†come across as self-absorbed and repetitive. So my advice would be:¬†do not read¬†this book all in one go (as I did while tending my sickbed), but just dip into it a chapter at a time, sipping it cautiously like tea which is in danger of scalding you or ice-cream which could freeze you. Because it blows now hot, now cold, and I was often not quite sure if I loved it or thought it merely average.

The nature/lost soul  parallels and the rebuilding of self can feel a little forced or obvious at times:

I’m repairing these dykes at the same time as I’m putting myself back together. I am building my defences, and each time I don’t take a drink when I feel like it, I am strengthening new pathways in my brain. I have to break the walls down a bit more before I can start to build them up again. I have to work with the stones I’ve got and can’t spend too long worrying if I’m making the perfect wall. I just have to get on with placing stones.

Yet there is an artless charm and wonder in this rediscovery of nature that is very hard to resist. There are quiet observations about lambing or bird-counting which refuse to sentimentalise life in welly boots. There is a bemused sense of ‘how did I get here from my passion for all things trendy and urban?’.

I never saw myself as, and resist becoming, the wholesome ‘outdoors’ type. But the things I experience keep dragging me in. There are moments that thrill and glow: the few seconds a silver male hen harrier flies beside my car one afternoon; the porpoise surfacing around our small boat; the wonderful sight of a herd of cattle let out on grass after a winter indoors, skipping and jumping, tails straight up to the sky with joy.

The flatness and trelessness of the Orkney Islands, from offshorewind.biz
The flatness and the treeless-ness of the Orkney Islands, from offshorewind.biz

These are the kind of moments I remember from my childhood spent in a very under-developed countryside, probably far more backward (though less remote) than the Orkneys. They illustrate joys which become greater in post-event storytelling, when you forget about most of the hardship. But it never fails to amuse me how popular nature writing is in Britain, which has so few truly rural, undeveloped areas left (there are far more isolated villages and communities in France, for instance). Amy is seldom far away from the nearest internet connection, tweeting or posting images of seals and chatting to her London friends on Skype. Yet she and her readers hanker for reconnection with nature, both in its beauty and roughness Рperhaps a nostalgia for a bygone age and unspoilt world.

The Merry Dancers, photo credit to Sian Thom at sianthom.blogspot.com
The Merry Dancers, photo credit to Sian Thom at sianthom.blogspot.com

Despite these quibbles, I did quite enjoy the book. The exhilaration of certain passages is infectious, such as this one describing the Northern Lights (known locally as the Merry Dancers):

I let me eyes adjust to the dark for the time it takes to smoke one cigarette then say, ‘Bloody hell’, out loud. In the past I have seen a greenish-tinged, gently glowing arc, low across the north, but tonight the whole sky is alive with shapes: white ‘searchlights’ beaming from behind the horizon, dancing waves directly above and slowly, thrillingly, blood red blooms. It’s brighter than a full moon and the birds, curlews and geese, are noisier than they usually are at this time of night, awakened by a false dawn. There is static in the air and it’s an unusual kind of light, the eerie glow of a floodlit stadium or a picnic eaten in car headlights.

Nevertheless, I can’t help¬†feeling that a shorter book (or a series of essays) would have been just as good.

 

My June in Reading

June has been a funny old month: too busy to engage much in reading, even when I needed it most. So, only 7 books that I read from cover to cover – a record low for me. And, for the first time ever, there were two books I did not finish (in the same month!). But I have made a bit of an inroad into my #20booksofsummer list, although they haven’t been an unalloyed joy so far. So, if you are sitting comfortably, shall we begin?

Doesn't this look like the path to unimaginable riches and adventures?
Doesn’t this look like the path to unimaginable riches and adventures?

The DNF stack

Ingrid Desjours: Les Fauves – for its gender stereotypes and mediocre thrillerish treatment of a subject which could have been very interesting

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star – with apologies to Naomi Frisby, who sent me this one and whose opinions I value extremely highly. Call me shallow, call me comfort-zone reader, but it just required too much effort to follow. The made-up language was very clever (as a linguist, I appreciated the fact it had certain basic rules). I really admired the author’s inventiveness, and the energy and diversity of the young people in the story. However, I’m just not all that fond of post-apocalyptic fiction, and a combination of flu and migraine made it even harder for me to go through with it. I may still go back to it later, when I am fitter and my brains are in less of a jamble.

The #20booksofsummer pile

In addition to Les Fauves (see above), I read four more of the 20 books of summer. At the rate of 5 a month, I may not finish the challenge by September 5th.

Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – self-absorbed, navel-gazing, travelling to find one’s self instead of get to know other people

Michel Bussi: Black Water Lilies – Monet, gardens, three generations of women, convoluted yawn

Emma Cline: The Girls – teenager looking for meaning and a sense of belonging, MFA writing style with glimmers of real style

Alison Umminger: My Favourite Manson Girl – another lost teenager with a dysfunctional family, strong YA voice

Found on a bookshelf

Claire Messud: The Emperor’s Children – slightly pretentious, but a sharp, sarcastic portrayal of ‘intellectual’ New York life

Jean-Claude Izzo: Vivre fatigue (Living wears you out) – oh, boy, is he depressing, but oh, boy, does he fit my current mood!

Review copy

Rebecca Bradley: Made to Be Broken Рa friend, but also a talented writer who really knows her police procedures and whose work is getting better and better

Unintentionally, this has been a month of women writers – only two men snuck in. It was also, unusually, an Anglo-French month: one third French, two thirds English-speaking. So not the most varied of months.

Before I leave France, however, I want to make more of an effort to find Romain Gary at the library. And I should leave out some poetry books: poetry is always a wonderful source of comfort and inspiration even in the most insane of moments.

 

First Two Books of Summer

You may not have seen any reviews up yet, but I started diligently on my list of #20booksofsummer on the 2nd of June. Here are the reviews of my first two reads in this category.

First up was Michel Bussi’s Black Water Lilies, but my tablet decided to throw a hissy fit and run down its batteries every 20 minutes or so, then take days to recharge. Then I got sidetracked by writing on my writing retreat (after all, that was the purpose, otherwise it would have been called a ‘reading retreat’). OK, and I admit, some other books on the endless shelves of the beautiful Verger sous les Vignes (Orchard under the Vineyards, which says it all about the location) also caught my attention. I spent a little time with Jean-Claude Izzo’s short stories (mostly set in Marseille, and of a despairing darkness which fits very well with the current news and atmosphere). I enjoyed the linguistic dexterity of Claire Messud and her depiction of New York life in all its pretentiousness but also poverty in The Emperor’s Children.¬†Besides, I was still reading¬†The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, which requires a deep commitment and power of concentration.

blackwaterliliesSo does that mean that it somehow failed to grab me? Bussi’s novel has, at first sight, all the ingredients that would appeal to me: a picturesque French village setting in Giverny, links with the art world – Monet’s home for the last few decades of his life, a puzzle about a missing painting, a child and a murder, and speculation about artistic heritage. Alas, sadly it does not live up to its premise! I read it to the end in the hope that the last half, third or quarter would redeem it, but that was not the case.

The story takes place over 13 days and starts with the apparently accidental death of Jerome Morval, a successful doctor, whose obsession for art matched his passion for women. It’s also the story of three female figures in the village: the old croon, the beautiful but bored wife, and the young painting prodigy. The team of investigators don’t quite know what to believe and end up duplicating or even triplicating each other in their search for the culprit or to prevent another murder from happening. There is so much foreshadowing it makes your head spin, but it’s not quite justified by the denouement. It’s good enough for a lazy beach read, and more enjoyable (to my mind) than¬†After the Crash, but it doesn’t have me raring to read more by this author.

 

AtlasAriel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart

Another disappointment, which I struggled to finish. Finish it I did, in the hope of some redeeming insight or grand conclusion, but there was none. Or not enough of one!

This is the author’s memoir of her late teens, aged 16-19, back in the late 1980s, when she drops out of high school in the US and goes travelling around Asia and Europe. Ariel is of a similar age to me, so I was curious to see if this was the story of my generation.

The answer is: no. Perhaps it is the story of that generation on the Pacific West Coast, but I think Europeans will struggle to identify with what she says. Her travels take her to Hong Kong, Beijing, Tibet, Nepal, Amsterdam, London and Tuscany, but in all these places she is adrift, far too preoccupied with herself, far too busy doing drugs, drinks and illegal smuggling, entering into loveless relationships, and never actually seeing or truly¬†understanding other people and other cultures. She expresses concern about a Chinese mentee who was questioned by the police, but it still feels cold and distant. This is Privilege-meets-the-rest-of-the-world and thinks a little bit about it, amusingly and from a ‘look at me’ perspective.

As a personal journey it may have some merit, although I found the narrator (which I acknowledge may not be quite the same as the author) infuriating, but as a travelogue it just seems to be one description of a terrible squat after another. The author has been praised for her candour and brave introspection, but this one seems a little too ‘brave’ and too honest for my liking. The prose is choppy, I remain unsure as to what the ultimate message is (if any), and I would hate to burden my child with this level of detail about how her parents met each other and how she was born.

Of course, we have to remember it is the diary of a teenager (and the author has gone on to write wiser and better things), but I think I prefer the Anne Franks or even the self-absorbed but observant Marie Bashkirtseffs of this world.

 

New TBR Reading Challenge – and Rereading

I’ve been following Jacqui’s recent deep-digging into her TBR pile with interest. Her latest blog post, reflecting on the experience of her #TBR20 challenge, was particularly enticing. Writer Eva Stalker launched the idea, and some of my blogging friends, such as Emma and Max, have also been persuaded to join in. So I plan to follow suit, while allowing some wriggle room for those inevitable review copies.

The principle is very simple. With so many books double and triple stacked on my shelves (not to mention stashed away on my e-reader), I really need to stop collecting and start reading some of them. So I plan to reduce the pile by at least 20, for however long it takes, and during this period I will refrain from buying any new books (other than those I am sent for urgent reviewing purposes). You are probably laughing, remembering how disastrous my TBR Double Dare challenge ended up… But this feels more manageable – or perhaps it’s just the right time of year to be doing it.

I do have an initial list of 20 in mind, but will allow myself to be open to the fickleness of moods and interests. I also want to incorporate a good selection of ebooks and real books, French and German books, poetry and non-fiction, crime and translated fiction etc. My Global Reading Challenge seems to be suffering a little here, so I may have to make some changes. I will probably need to do a serious cull of my ebooks at some point in addition to this.

So here are my first thoughts on the topic (the ones marked with C denote crime fiction titles, W is for woman writer)

1) Books in French:

P1030248All about the challenges and disappointments of everyday life in modern France – quite a contrast to the more luscious depiction of France in fiction written by foreigners.

Marcus Malte: Cannisses – small-town residential area C

Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit Рthe alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues  C

Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz РUkrainian refugee in Breton village, aiming to cross over to Britain  C

Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine – Morocco meets France in this collection of bittersweet and often very funny short stories

Dominique Sylvain: Ombres et soleil Рfinally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade Рplus the charming humour of the detecting duo Lola and Ingrid.   C W

2) Books in German: 

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Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord  Рthird case for Kayankaya, the Turkish-born detective with a very Frankfurt attitude   C

Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs – stories from small-town Switzerland

Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe Рthe dying of the light in East Germany, a biology teacher who proves to be the last of her species  W

Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch – this wasn’t much liked by the IFFP shadow jury, but I was attracted by its Berlin setting and thought it could be the Christiane F. for the new generation ¬†W

Friederike Schm√∂e: Fliehganzleis – 2nd case for ghostwriter Kea Laverde: I’ve read others in the series and this one is again about East vs. West Germany and some traumatic historical events ¬† C ¬†W

3) Books on ereader

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Ever Yours – The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of my favourite painters, need I say more?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – an allegorical tale

John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet Рthe return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa  C

Sara Novic: Girl at War Рchild survivor of Yugoslav war returns to Zagreb ten years later  W

Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel Рdebut collection of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of the Younger Poets prize  W

4) Other:

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Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – Romanian writer who died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 29 in 1938 (perhaps fortunately so, since he was Jewish)

Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills – shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year, but written back in 1983, it’s all about Mother Russia, the artist’s life and living under censorship

Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night Рthe first in the Simran Singh series and always very topical about controversial subjects in India C W

Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – a younger person’s version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which I didn’t like much), a teenager’s journey of self-discovery and running away from America ¬†W

Wendy Cope: The Funny Side Р101 Humorous Poems (selected and introduced by Cope)  W

Have you read any of these? Are there any you would particularly recommend starting with, or should I swap some over for something else? (They do strike me, on the whole, as a rather sombre pile of books).

The other idea that Jacqui planted into my head was to have a bit of a rereading challenge. I carry my favourite books with me in every place I’ve ever lived in and I look up certain pages, but I never get a chance anymore to reread them properly. (Where, oh where are the days when I used to reread all of the novels of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen every year or two?) So who would like to join me and Jacqui on a #reread challenge? Perhaps of 6 books in a year, roughly one every 2 months? Would that be feasible?

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Here are some instant favourites that spring to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night’; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ (her last novel); Jean Rhys’ ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’; Muriel Spark’s ‘Loitering with Intent’ and Tillie Olsen’s brilliant collection of essays about life getting in the way of creating ‘Silences’. What would you reread, if you could and would?