Two Recent Orenda Book Titles

It’s hard not to have favourites among publishers, although I primarily choose books and authors rather than from publishers’ catalogues. However, Virago (for women writers), Tuttle (for Japanese writers), Faber & Faber and Penguin Classics were my childhood favourites, and in recent years I have been impressed by Europa Editions, Gallic Books, Peirene Press, World Editions and Istros Books for their commitment to fiction in translation. One publisher who is unabashedly dedicated to genre fiction, especially thrillers and crime fiction, is Orenda Books and I have mentioned before how much I admire founder Karen Sullivan’s drive and energy in finding and promoting writers in the UK and abroad.

What is interesting about Orenda is that their list is made up of books which personally appeal to Karen, so they feature quite a mix of styles and subjects. Not all of them have sparked my interest, but the ones that have been in my ‘preferred genre’ have all been great picks, a surefire combination of commercial appeal and good writing. I will just mention here Nordic noir such as Ragnar Jonasson and Kati Hiekkapelto.

The two most recent titles I’ve read have been somewhat different, something which I would hesitate to label ‘psychological thrillers’, although they have their fair share of thrills and twists. They are stories which rip your heart and make you think long and hard.

jihadiYusuf Toropov: Jihadi – A Love Story

This is not the easiest of books to read, partly because of its themes (terrorism, random savagery, betrayal, misguided ideology – all uncomfortably close to real life and what I perceive the whole ‘war on terror’ to be), but above all because of its structure. The ‘document’ is largely written by a dead man, Thelonious Liddell, an intelligence officer accused of being a traitor, and is interspersed with comments very much like Post-It notes by a psychologist, who we gradually realise is in fact his wife Becky, herself an intelligence officer.  But it’s worth persevering with, because it  is unquestionably an important book for our times, a read that plunges you into the icy water of the costs and failures of ‘the war on terror’.

Thelonius’ memoir contains passages recounting significant moments from the point of view of two other characters whom he meets in the course of his assignment: Fatima, the devout interpreter, and the American soldier Mike Mazzoni, a nasty bully. Points of view, of course, which he is guessing at, which he cannot possibly know, but which sound very plausible (although the psychologist’s comments make fun of them). They really add to the story, but it does mean that you need to concentrate and read carefully. There are so many complex layers and allusions, that you probably need to read the book two or three times to get all the nuances.

And a word of warning for those of you who cannot bear cruelty to animals: in addition to descriptions of flechette attacks on civilian population, and some graphic scenes of torture, maiming and killing (on both sides of the divide), there is also a sad moment when Thelonious has to watch his cat Child die.

inherwakeAmanda Jennings: In Her Wake

I read this in one breathless go, just couldn’t stop, the story is such that it takes you along on a voyage full of suspense, sadness, poignancy, drama. It is the story of a family – two families in fact, and the secrets and pressures which nearly tear them apart. When Bella’s mother dies, her father seems quite broken, about to share something with her but then changing his mind. A series of shocking discoveries makes Bella realise that everything she thought she knew about her life was wrong.

Her search for the truth takes her to Cornwall and another deeply damaged family. But reading the book as quickly as I did does not do it justice, because the writing is very subtle and perfectly judged. Throughout, the settings are conveyed with a great sense of atmosphere – not just Cornwall, but the Old Vicarage, the Bristol bolthole. The characters are complex and vividly described, behaving consistently but also in surprising ways – much like in real life.  Some scenes very nearly made me cry, both by what was said and what was left unsaid. 

There is also a dream-like, almost supernatural strand to the story – as enticing and mysterious as the sirens singing to Ulysses. A book which can be read on many levels: a romping good tale of unanswered questions and suspense, but also a poetic, thoughtful piece on the intricacies of human relationships, loss, regrets, identity and lost dreams.

On Brooding in Photogenic Landscape and Noticing Dust Motes

Dustmotes Dancing in the Sunbeams by Vilhelm Hammershoi (appropriately enough, Danis painter). From www.the-athenaeum.org
Dustmotes Dancing in the Sunbeams by Vilhelm Hammershoi (appropriately enough, a 19th/early 20th century Danish painter). From http://www.the-athenaeum.org

I stopped watching the recent TV adaptation of Jamaica Inn on the BBC after the first episode, although Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite writers. No, it was not because of the incomprehensible mumbling which had a record number of complaints letters streaming in. Instead, it was because it felt all style and no content. For a witty and fair review of the film vs. the book version, see here.  I don’t know if it’s the influence of Scandinavian crime dramas, but I’ve noticed in quite a few TV dramas lately that moodiness and atmosphere inevitably lead to lack of pace. So we end up with lots of shots of photogenic protagonists staring into the distance at even more photogenic landscapes. And the story, which could have been told more effectively in 1-2 episodes, spreads out endlessly and glumly over 5 or even more evenings.

This doesn’t just happen in TV series, of course. I’ve  attended a number of writing workshops where participants have read out a beautifully crafted chapter from their work in progress… containing an intimately observed but interminable description of dust motes. Or the main character stares at himself in the mirror for quite a few pages. There seems to be a slight misunderstanding about what constitutes good writing or literary fiction nowadays. Lack of pace and plot does not make a work literary. Most of the fiction we consider ‘classic’ nowadays was written as potboilers, with little thought beyond entertaining the public and making some money out of it. Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dumas – there is incident aplenty in any of their books, as well as outstanding writing. Of course the writing is uneven, too, and there are often passages in their works that are crying out for a good editor.

I am not making the mistake to equate ‘lots of incidents/events’ with a good novel, or even a good plot. I’ve read far too much crime fiction by debut authors, where the main protagonist goes from one implausible situation to the next tricky one with barely a moment to breathe and bandage his wounds or feed her cat (yes, that gender division does appear on occasion still). That is equally boring as speculating about the inner life of dust particles.

Still, if I want to penetrate the enigma of sparkling dust motes or understand the world through a character’s gaze upon him or herself in the mirror, then I prefer to read a poem, a short story or an essay. There is really no need to extend it to novel-length, just like there is no point in extending a TV drama over 5 weeks if it has nothing new to say in each episode (unlike the genuine Scandinavian article, ‘The Bridge’, which had me gasping in shock and amazement every ten minutes).

Can you forgive a novel (or a TV drama) its lack of pace, plot or characterisation if it has enough moody atmosphere or beautiful writing? Or are you sometimes ashamed to admit you are bored by great stylists?

All that Fuss about David Foster Wallace

A few months ago, when I started getting serious about writing (again), someone pointed me in the direction of a website called ‘I Write Like’. Clever little robots analyse a sample of your writing (in English) and tell you which writer (living or dead) you most resemble. Imagine my surprise when it came up with ‘David Foster Wallace’ after I cut and pasted a chapter of my WIP.  Surprising, because: 1) my novel is crime fiction, and 2) I had never heard of this author.  (Yes, my grasp of contemporary American fiction is a little shaky.)  So I ignored this first result and submitted another text.

Same result.

By now, I was getting convinced that this was the default setting of the website, no matter what your input was.  So I tried a poem.  And got Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  What does one of the world’s funniest books have in common with my rather moody and depressing poetry?  Anybody’s guess!

So, although I was unconvinced by the analytical tool, this website did make me curious about David Foster Wallace.  I started reading up on him.  And boy, was there a lot of stuff written about him!  Most recently, a biography by D.T. Max entitled Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.  This, in turn, led to an outburst by Bret Easton Ellis on Twitter, culminating in him calling David Foster Wallace ‘the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation’.

Well, with an intro to like that, I just had to read the man himself!  Wouldn’t you?  (I am cheating a little bit with the timeline here: in fact, I had bought ‘Infinite Jest’ just before the summer holidays and intended to polish it off during my inactive, very long-seeming days on that nondescript beach in Greece that my husband’s family calls home.) I am about halfway through this doorstopper of a book: page 508 of its 1079 pages (including endnotes). And I can tell you two things for sure:

1) This book is not made for beach reading (although it is good for dipping in and out of).

2) I do not write like him at all.

Or at least I hope I don’t. Not that I disliked his style.  I was, by turns, amused, fascinated, bemused, indifferent, enthusiastic, critical, passionate and infuriated.  It is not an easy read and you have to be in the mood for it – which is difficult to sustain over that many pages.  It is a book breathtaking in its ambition: to capture all of contemporary American society, which is why it’s probably best read in several sittings, across many months.  Although individual passages glowed with insight and humour, although there was beautiful writing which made me want to reread and quote, I did find the cumulative effect rather wearisome.  There, I said it!  Does that mean I am siding with Bret Easton Ellis?

No, not really, because I don’t understand why he is attacking David Foster Wallace himself for the halo of sentimentality and mantle of sainthood that his readers and followers have bestowed on him. It’s like accusing Van Gogh of commercialisation because his ‘Sunflowers’ sell so well, or Shakespeare of insisting that people use his newfangled word inventions.

I may have no wish to write like David Foster Wallace myself, but I can still enjoy reading him (in small gulps).  If we only liked reading people like ourselves, the world would be a very bland place. I find some of the imitators of David Foster Wallace tiresome and pretentious.  I find all imitators tiresome, unless it’s a clever sequel or deliberate satire. And I dislike literary pretentiousness, so well satirised in the character of Monica in Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’. I am sure more have praised ‘Infinite Jest’ and its author than have actually read it or him.  Isn’t that what happens with other famous works such as Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman?

Which, by the way, all three happen to be heartbreaking works of staggering genius.  Not easy, but stick with them!

* Gorgeous new graphic design for Tristram Shandy at Fast Company: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663094/wanted-tristram-shandy-gets-a-stunning-graphic-makeover