#6Degrees of Separation: From Sanditon…

Time for one of my favourite monthly memes: Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. You start with the book suggested by Kate and create a chain of six books linked by whatever means to the one before. I couldn’t resist a Jane Austen book and her last, unfinished novel Sanditon is our starting point this month.

Most of the covers of Sanditon are abysmal, so I chose this more or less contemporary illustration.

Sadly, there’s not much left of Sanditon, but given that Austen’s previous novel Persuasion is my favourite, and shows signs of a maturing, ever more sensitive and subtle writer, it could potentially have been a satirical masterpiece. The recent TV series based on it was most definitely not!

Another novel that had a very disappointing TV adaptation recently was H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. I gave up about half-way through, as they managed to make Wells’ exciting story as dull as ditchwater. Quite unlike the infamous radio adaptation of it by Orson Welles in 1938, which is supposed to have started a mass panic in New York City. (Turns out, this is a bit of a myth.)

A book about a real mass hysteria phenomenon is Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518 by John Waller. In the summer of 1518 hundreds of men and women started dancing compulsively in the city of Strasbourg, until they died of heat stroke and exhaustion. Waller tries to find an explanation for this random and crazy phenomenon, but there is a distinct lack of real historical sources, so it will leave readers somewhat disappointed.

Speaking of mass hysteria and quasi-religious movements, how can I not mention the Jonestown massacre? I’ve read a lot about it in the course of my own studies of cults, but there’s a debut novel out entitled Beautiful Revolutionary by Australian author Laura Elizabeth Woollett that has caught my eye. Based upon interviews with the survivors of the 1978 mass ‘suicide’ in the Guyana jungle, the fictionalised account suggests (perhaps somewhat naively) that the victims of Jim Jones were also a victim of the times and society they lived in.

My next book shares ‘revolutionary’ in the title and perhaps also the feeling of discontent with society, but is very different. One of my all-time favourite novels, although I found it very difficult to read at the time (for personal reasons): Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road.

Another woeful story about marital breakdown is German author’s Jakob Wassermann’s My Marriage (translated by Michael Hofmann), published posthumously and based on the author’s own unhappy marriage in Vienna.

My final link is another posthumous book – and probably just as well that it was posthumous, as it would probably have led to the death of the author in any case. The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov is one of my favourite books of all time (I’ve even done a special Friday Fun edition of its cover art): surreal, impossible to describe, infuriating and very, very funny. It’s about the madness of trying to make sense of an absurd world. And it comes back full circle to the equally posthumous Sanditon

June 2018 Reading Summary

I’ve been a little naughty about tagging my books with Goodreads lately, plus they seem to have changed their way of showing what you have read, so I hope I haven’t forgotten any here. It seems that June was an opulent reading month: 16 books finished, only 1 abandoned. Lots of lighter reading too. 7 male authors, 9 women, 5 translations. And I even got to review some of these, so bravo bravissimo me!

#20BooksofSummer Challenge

I’ve done reasonably well, reading 5 books this month, which is not bad considering that I started nearly a week late.

Zygmunt Miłoszewski: Priceless, transl. Antonia Lloyd-Jones – an adventure and crime story about tracking down art treasures stolen from Poland during the Nazi occupation. Described as ‘reminiscent of Dan Brown’, I actually enjoyed it much more than Dan Brown – maybe because it is Europe NOT seen through the eyes of an American. Well researched, but the author also dares to go off on flights of (plausible) fantasy. This also fits in with my nearly forgotten #EU27Project, as an entry for Poland.

Belinda Bauer: Snap – gripping and sad by turns, another pageturner by Bauer, who is so good at creating believable children’s voices. Some implausible coincidences slightly marred it, thereby not making it one of my favourite books by her, but still a good read.

And then the three I reviewed earlierAuntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, The Single Mums’ Mansion and Bookworm.

For review on Crime Fiction Lover site:

Pol Koutsakis: Baby Blue – realistic and sombre portrait of present-day Athens and its homeless population

Eliot Pattison: Savage Liberty – historical crime set on the eve of the American Revolution, somewhat long but absolutely fascinating

Bob Van Laerhoven: Return to Hiroshima (review to come) – the after-effects of the atomic bomb, Japanese cults, expats in Japan – this one ticked all the boxes for me on paper, but did it live up to my expectations? You’ll have to check on CFL to find out.

Carol Fenlon: Mere – although it’s an atmospheric tale set in the meres of Lancashire, it’s not crimey enough, so I won’t be reviewing it for the site, although I might still do it on my blog

Then there was another book in this category which I did not finish. I had actually asked CFL to allow me to review it, as it was written by an acquaintance, but I didn’t like it. Tricky situation, telling my acquaintance that I wouldn’t be reviewing it after all.

Non-fiction

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason  – hard to believe how out-of-date this book already is, given all that has happened since it was published in 2008. It really opened my eyes to things about American education, culture and public debates that I didn’t know or couldn’t believe. Although it is quite dense on scholarship and evidence, the prose is remarkably deft and accessible.

Blake Bailey: A Tragic Honesty – this biography of Richard Yates depressed me no end – because it seems his themes and nihilistic writing are a result of personal experience. I guess it really pays not to know too much about your favourite authors! He made all the mistakes, displayed all the boorish behaviours, was a dreadful husband and friend – and yet had the ability to notice, analyse and mock all of these characteristics in his writing.

Others

Joanna Walsh: Break.up – this one got me pondering, because whilst I welcome non-plot driven novels (and loved Tokarczuk’s Flights, which is in a similar vein), this one exasperated me in parts. Perhaps because the topic of lost love irritated me – it is a strange relationship anyway that the narrator is recovering from – a bit of a non-relationship really. However there were many enchanting and pertinent observations too.

Ali Smith: Autumn – I appreciated it but did not love it; the relationship between young and old is interesting and often underrepresented in fiction, and the description of post-Brexit Britain is necessary, but perhaps it’s too soon to produce masterpieces on that topic

Marian Keyes: The Break – an impulse library loan, it was funny, occasionally painful but a little too long

John Berger: G.  – watch out next week for Shiny New Books’ special Golden Man Booker Prize features, where I briefly analyse this by now largely forgotten winner

My favourite book of the month

is actually the first one I read this month: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover. Brilliant story of an Iranian family who suffer political disillusionment, go into exile and never quite find themselves again thereafter, seen through the eyes of the daughter who is trying to continue the family line through IVF treatment. Full review to come soon on Shiny New Books. This also counts as a French entry to #EU27Project, like I don’t have enough French entries anyway!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How much Richard Yates can one bear?

Richard Yates: Young Hearts Crying

youngheartsIt’s no secret that I am fond of the way in which Richard Yates cynically pierces the bubble of the American Dream, and thereby makes us all cringe as we recognise our own undesirable tendencies to envy others, to keep up with the Joneses, to be self-absorbed, to be unable to live up to our ideals, to be unrealistic and so on. Self-flagellation is alive and kicking in his novels and the rather sentimentally entitled ‘Young Hearts Crying’ is no exception. It is the story of a mismatched couple, as is so often the case with Yates, but interestingly enough, it does not end with the dissolution of a marriage and tragedy (as Revolutionary Road does). In fact, it might even be said to have a mildly upbeat ending. At least there is some hope that life goes on and that the characters have learnt a bit of a lesson.

Michael Davenport is a young war veteran determined to succeed as a writer without recourse to his wife’s trust fund. He is confident he will be able to support his family through his job without compromising his art. His motto seems to be:

Once I get the hang of it, I’ll be doing [this job] with my left hand.

His wife, Lucy, is initially adoring and supportive, but as Michael gets stuck in one dead-end job after another, and never gets around to writing, she becomes increasingly disenchanted. As in all Yates books, a lot of drinking is involved. It doesn’t help that the young couple keep comparing themselves with the Nelsons, who seem to be able to effortlessly combine artistic merit with commercial and social success. The grass is always greener on the other side and Michael believes that the mark of a true professional is to make difficult things look easy. However, he personally finds writing very difficult, so he becomes bitter and twisted in the process.

After the marriage breaks down, both of them drift. Lucy attempts to find herself through acting, writing and art, each time grasping at the straw of an artistic mentor. Meanwhile, Michael has a nervous breakdown and searches for ever-younger female company. Each of them reaches some kind of conclusion, although I would hesitate to call it ‘wisdom’, more like a ‘compromised way of life’.  But the journey there is marked by the fierce humour and cringeworthy anecdotes, as well as the quietly controlled style that makes Yates such a master of discontent.

Despair would have to wait at least a few more hours, because this was a party night at the Nelsons’.

DorothyParkerI remember a friend advising me not to read Revolutionary Road (which was my first book by Yates) unless my own marriage was happy and I felt fulfilled. I have to admit he is so ruthless in his dissection of human flaws and so pessimistic in outlook that he does not make for the most comforting of reads. I can certainly not bear to read more than one of his books at a time (and then move on to lighter things). However, unlike Jean Rhys, he is not unremittingly tragic (perhaps because his characters are so pitiable but not likeable at all). There is a lot of satire and comedy in his work, which occasionally reminds me of Dorothy Parker’s (woefully underrated) tragicomic short stories.

Depression and Breakdown: in Fiction and in Life

yatesRichard Yates: Disturbing the Peace

This is the world of Mad Men: 1960s New York and advertising, men earning enough money to support their families whilst feeling strangely alienated from them, trying to find some deeper meaning and purpose, but not quite succeeding. Except, of course, Richard Yates was the original and the writers of Mad Men have been influenced by him. This is not as moving a book as Revolutionary Road, possibly because it only presents one man’s point of view, nor is it as subtle, but it’s nevertheless a masterly description of a disturbed psyche who refuses to help himself.

Yates is one of the best authors to scrape away the thin veneer of comfortable, civilised, well-adjusted lifestyles and expose the despair and sense of emptiness lying beneath. Our main protagonist John Wilder was not wildly successful at school and university, but has made a reasonable career for himself in selling advertising space. One night, on his way back home from a business trip to Chicago, he has a nervous breakdown and gets sent to Bellevue mental hospital for a few days, where he feels like the only sane person in a sea of madness.

Richard Yates, from babelio.com
Richard Yates, from babelio.com

This experience marks him profoundly, but it estranges him further from his wife Janice (who craves nothing more than normality) and his sulky pre-teen son. His psychotherapy sessions are a joke, he goes to AA meetings without any intention of giving up his drinking and he embarks on an affair with a young girl, Pamela, believing she will help him to reinvent himself and resurrect his childhood dream of becoming a film producer. Needless to say, everyhing he touches turns to rot. There is a lengthy impressionistic scene describing John’s descent into paranoia and violence which is chilling, but perhaps even more sinister is the final resignation and incarceration. (Hopefully that’s not a spoiler alert – you just know there’s not going to be a happy ending with a book by Yates.)

John is not the most sympathetic character; at times you may find it hard to even pity him. He is obnoxious, selfish, stubborn and self-pitying. Yet he is also riddled with doubt and lack of self-esteem. He is so obsessed, for instance, about being too short, that he sees even the big moments of American history entirely through his self-centred perspective. Here’s what he has to say about the assassination of JFK:

He felt sympathy for the assassin and he felt he understood the motives. Kennedy had been too young, too rich, too handsome and too lucky; he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse. His murderer had spoken for weakness, for neurasthenic darkness, for struggle without hope and for the self-defeating passions of ignorance, and John Wilder understood those forces all too well. He almost felt he’d pulled the trigger himself…

Many readers think this is one of the weakest of Yates’ novels: it is true that it feels rather disjointed and episodic. There are some great set pieces and memorable scenes, but jerky transitions. I found it can still be ‘enjoyed’ (if that’s the right word) on its own terms, and it’s this ‘anti-American dream’ stance which makes all of Richard Yates’ work so interesting.

reasonstostayYou can’t help feeling that if John Wilder had read Matt Haig: Reasons to Stay Alive he might have found a way of managing his life better. Haig’s book is a very personal description of his own experience with an apparently sudden attack of depression in his twenties and he is careful to explain that each person’s depression is different. Yet it also contains very wise statements about perceptions (and self-perceptions) of depression, brings in other people’s views on finding reasons to keep on going on, raises many important points for a serious debate about mental health.

Anyone who has experienced depression or known someone with depression will find this a very useful and at times quite uplifting book. It is not a self-help book, nor is it a systematic autobiography of the darkest hour and coming out of it. There is quiet humour, but none of the manic energy which spoiled Furiously Happy for me. There are some very well-written scenes that convey just how it feels to try and cope with panic attacks and overwhelming depressive pain.

From matthaig.com
From matthaig.com

What was most interesting to me was that the author was very sceptical (as I am) of medication and that he found alternative ways of dealing with his depression. I found his conversations between ‘then me’ and ‘now me’ very revealing, while his descriptions of being overly sensitive and anxious spoke to me directly. The only criticism I would have is that perhaps the structure is too loose, it tends to jump around between subjects. But what brilliant subjects can be found here: Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations; Things depression says to you; Boys don’t cry and many more, each worthy of a lengthy discussion in its own right.

I’ll close with a couple of quotes out of the many quotable passages in the book, one that links back so well to the Yates novel:

Life is hard. It may be beautiful and wonderful but it is also hard. The way people seem to cope is by not thinking about it too much. But some people are not going to be able to do that.

I’m not talking about all that What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger stuff. No. That’s simply not true. What doesn’t kill you very often makes you weaker. What doesn’t kill you can leave you limping for the rest of your days. What doesn’t kill you can make you scared to leave your house, or even your bedroom, and have you trembling, or mumbling incoherently, or leaning with your head on a window pane, wishing you could return to the time before the thing that didn’t kill you.