Passing Through

I am still somewhat brainless with chronic fatigue and turgid in spirit (isn’t turgid a good word?), though I don’t know what Mr Litlove’s excuse is. This is an exchange we had just the other evening:

Me: And how were your sandwiches today?

Mr Litlove: Very nice, very tasty. I do like that cheese. And the mayonnaise.

Me: That’s interesting. Considering the sandwiches I made you were ham and tomato.

Mr Litlove: (eyes darting from right to left in concentration) But there was mayonnaise in there… wasn’t there?

Me: You don’t have a clue, do you?

It’s a wonder they still let us drive. The only thing I’ve been doing with any consistency and engagement is, as usual, reading. But so many of the books that have passed through my hands lately have been for the magazine, one way or another. You’ll note the Monique Roffey in my sidebar, and the recent half-review of Archipelago I wrote. I’m actually putting together a special feature about her writing for our next edition because I think she’s an amazing author, fearless in her approach and so clever in her storytelling. She’s asking questions about power and politics, risk and catastrophe that no one else has the guts to tackle.

in love and warI’ve also just finished the new novel by Laurie Graham, who is a writer who really should be better known than she is. Several years ago now I read and loved The Importance of Being Kennedy, and since then she has produced a series of historical novels that focus on a sprawling dynasty at the height of a crisis. Only she is a wonderfully comic author who gives her characters the sort of lines that Maggie Smith would punch the air to have in Downton Abbey. This latest was a joy and my love of her continues unabated. I’m also at the start of a novel by Alex Preston set in the late 30s when a young man is sent (in disgrace) to Florence by his powerful father in order to set up a wireless station for the Faschists. It’s been wonderful so far. Honestly, if any idiot decides to proclaim the death of contemporary fiction, I shall be unrestrained in my scorn. I’ve read – and have still to read – a stream of brilliant books for the magazine.

Given my under-par nature at the moment, I’ve also been reading solidly comforting crime fiction. Last year, thanks to Danielle, I discovered Elizabeth Daly and her gentleman detective, Henry Gamadge. I read Any Shape or Form, set as usual in the grand houses and crazy families of New York in the 1940s and absolutely loved it. Gamadge is visiting his elderly Aunt Alice and obliged to visit the neighbours with her. There, two conflicted sides of a family – the stepmother and her stepchildren – are being brought together by Johnny Redfields, a friend to all concerned, in the hope of effecting a reconciliation. Before the end of the afternoon, however, the stepmother is dead. It was the sort of book that makes me think of Bertie Wooster who, when interrupting Jeeves in his reading of Spinoza, commented guiltily that he bet Jeeves’d just got to the place where they found the second body.

deadheadingI’ve also recently discovered Catherine Aird, though her books are a bit harder to get hold of. She has a hapless Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan (‘Seedy’ to his work colleagues) squashed between a boss half in love with the ill-digested propositions of whatever recent training course he’s been on, and the only reinforcement he can ever lay hands on, Constable Crosby, who no one believes will ever make a decent detective as he is so immune to the niceties of police work. They all take place in the fictional county of Calleshire and are sort of halfway between Caroline Graham with her Midsomer Murders and something a little older and gentler, Margery Allingham perhaps or Ngaio Marsh. I like ‘em.

the last asylumThere have also been a few new arrivals over the threshold, cough. I couldn’t resist historian Barbara Taylor’s memoir, The Last Asylum, about the four years she spent there recovering from a nervous breakdown. Nor The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark by Josh Cohen, which draws on psychoanalysis, literature and life to argue that we cannot lose our basic privacy because we have parts of ourselves that even we can’t access. (Mr Litlove skim-read this one weekend morning and said he found it a bit academic, but I don’t suppose I’ll mind that too much). I’ve also picked up copies of Sue Gee’s Coming Home, about colonial Brits returned from India, and D. J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, an alternative history novel which begins with the death of Wallis Simpson. Cleopatra had her asses’ milk, I have creamy pages of vanilla-sprinkle words to bathe in; I can thoroughly recommend it as a treatment. But what do we do about Mr Litlove??

 

 

Pleasures: Pure and Bittersweet

Pure pleasure first of all: do hop over to Shiny New Books to check out the latest update we’ve made to the first edition. We’ve been calling it the ‘inbetweenie’ amongst ourselves, as it’s just enough to bridge the gap between now and the next big edition, out at the start of July. You’ll find my biographical piece on Celia Fremlin, as well as Five Fascinating Facts about Rumer Godden. Do check out the reviews of their work, too, as well as new reviews of novels by Meg Rosoff, Alice Hoffmann and Sophie Hannah. And lots more, besides.

bittersweetBittersweet is a twisty romp of a summer reading novel that will be out in the UK at the start of June and is published already in the USA. If Carol Goodman and Dynasty had a love child together, then Bittersweet would be the result. The situation is not wholly unfamiliar: Mabel Dagmar is a dowdy scholarship girl at a fancy East coast college and she feels it sharply, not least because her roommate is the beautiful and lethargically indifferent rich kid, Ginevra (Ev) Winslow. Then, when one of Ev’s cousins commits suicide, Mabel finds herself drawn into the role of comforter and conspirator, and she loves it. Ev invites her out to the family estate in Vermont for the summer and Mabel is desperate to go, wild to escape her own family with whom she has deep but unexplored issues.

Winloch is a sprawling estate, rich in an abundance of gorgeous nature, as well as just plain rich. It’s the vision of Ev’s great-great-grandfather, Samson Winslow who bought up huge tracts of Vermont land and scattered rustic cottages across it for his descendents to inhabit, a kind of natural utopia for a dynasty, where ancient plumbing vies with original Van Goghs on the walls. Ev has recently inherited a cottage named Bittersweet and needs Mabel’s help to make it habitable. Before long, Mabel has begun to infiltrate the family, hypnotised by a promise made by Ev’s crazy aunt, Indo, that Mabel can inherit Indo’s cottage if she helps her track down documentation that proves a wrong done to her many years ago. And of course, all the Winslow papers are just sitting in the attic in the main building where the family collects for its meals, laid out and ready for Mabel’s spying eyes.

Mabel has a lot on her hands, trying to keep the fickle Ev onside whilst figuring out who she’s seeing in the secret liaisons she sneaks off to, forging what feels like a genuine bond with Ev’s younger sister, Lu, and running scared of Ev’s terrifying parents, the falsely matey Birch and his frosty perfectionist wife, Tilda. She’s also falling in love with Ev’s brother, Galway, and can’t be sure if he is a better specimen than the rest of his family, or whether he’s just stringing her along, too. Amid the idyllic skinny dipping and the family picnics, she’s trying to figure out the disquieting secrets bound up with the family’s sudden acquisition of vast wealth in the aftermath of the Depression. Mabel feels compelled to get to the root of the problem, but if she does so, how can she keep her place in this brave new paradise she’s found?

This is a lot of fun – adolescent shenanigans, secrets and lies, hidden diaries, old documents, smiling tyrants, sexual tension and dead turtles all come together in a narrative that unites coming-of-age with the Gothic thriller. It’s extremely engaging until the last quarter, where Gone Girl has a lot to answer for. We could all see this coming, couldn’t we? Now any thriller worth its salt is determined to pile on the sensational melodrama as we rock up to a never-saw-it-coming conclusion. In all fairness, the final resting point of the story is in fact something I didn’t see coming, and it was rather intriguing. There is, however, some madness to weather before reaching that point. If you like your family scandal pungent and outrageous, you’ll enjoy it anyway. The best way to read this one is not to take it too seriously, but to understand it is like watching a glossy saga on TV on a weekday afternoon. For me it would have been a better book if it had lost a twist or three from that end section and remained within the realm of plausibility, but I realise I am old-fashioned in that respect. I still enjoyed it.

Mwah-ha-ha To You, Too

night filmThis isn’t the kind of book I’d normally read, but lately I’ve been drawn to stories with a horrific or extreme edge to them. I fear I’ve finally turned into the kind of person who reads about situations worse than their own for comfort. The ethical jury in my mind is still out on this; I’ll get back to you when the verdict comes in.

So Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a whopper of a book, almost six hundred pages interspersed with mock pages from internet sites and magazines like Rolling Stone that must have had the collective knickers of the publisher’s Right’s Department in a twist, so genuine do they appear. Already we can begin to spots the signs of a postmodern imagination at work, yet the narrative also draws heavily on the old-fashioned hardboiled thriller. That same slightly awkward juxtaposition will be at work in the content too, which reaches for the outermost edge of contemporary horror film making, whilst falling unashamedly into the tropes of the scary ol’ ‘B’ movie.

The story begins with the ‘accidental’ death of young, beautiful and talented Ashley Cordova, whose body is found at the bottom of a lift shaft in an abandoned Manhatten warehouse. She was the daughter of the notorious and reclusive film director, Stanislas Cordova, whose eccentric life is legendary. The family occupied a huge and isolated estate, surrounded by a twenty foot high perimeter fence, in whose extensive grounds Cordova shot his fifteen films. Those films are only screened in select underground viewings – in the dead of night, in pitch darkness and often in condemned buildings. You can see where we’re going with this, and I hope you can hear the tremulous chords of the electric organ playing something portentous… Cordova’s films have spawned an impressive cult following, and his fan club hold their website on the onion, a black market version of the internet (is this for real?). The films are supposed to provoke the most terrifying viewing experience that has ever been created, and Cordova has been celebrated as a genius and reviled as a madman possessed of an evil, sick mind.

Enter stage right investigative journalist Scott McGrath. McGrath was researching a book about Cordova when he received a clandestine call from a man claiming to be the family’s ex-chauffeur, and suggesting that Cordova was involved in child abuse. This so rattled McGrath that when he appeared later that evening on a television interview program, he went so far as to suggest that ‘someone needs to terminate [Cordova] with extreme prejudice. The lawyers of the great man were instantly galvanised into action and McGrath has for some time now been a disgraced investigative journalist, unable to retain his credibility. Naturally the death of Cordova’s daughter awakens all his instincts, and he doubts the verdict of suicide. He also begins to believe that he saw Ashley shortly before she died. He was jogging around Central Park late at night when a ghostly vision in a red coat appeared to him in the shadows, and seemed to flit about the park following him at a supernatural speed.

Scott becomes engrossed in an unofficial investigation that soon brings him two young side-kicks, Nora Halliday, a would-be actress working as a coat-check girl in a restaurant, and the handsome young Hopper, a druggie with surprising capabilities. Together they start to patch together a timetable of Ashley’s final days, starting with her break out of a mental institution, and ending with her fall from the roof of the warehouse. Everywhere they turn they uncover more and more disturbing accounts of Ashley’s behaviour, that seem to indicate some kind of demonic possession. And the deeper they delve into the Cordova family’s murky past, the more dangerous their investigation becomes.

This is such a mixed bag of a book. The first 250 pages had me absolutely gripped, and then, when I reached the 400 mark, my interest began to flag. This could be me – I struggle with big books and this one did not do anything to dissuade me that anything over 500 pages has at least 200 pages of padding in it. But then it picked up a lot at the end, which is remarkably clever and inventive and finds Scott being chased through a series of old film sets on the Cordova estate, beset by the nightmareish visions they awaken, and by the menacing loss of distinction between fantasy and reality. In parts, the writing is excellent and wonderfully creative; for example, an image I loved of birds on a telegraph wire: ‘seven tiny black notes on an otherwise empty piece of sheet music, the lines and bars sagging.’ But the reader must contend with Marisha Pessl’s obsession with italicising words and snippets of phrases, two or three per page. This can become quite the irritant. Much about the plotting and the general idea of the book is extremely innovative; the characters of Scott and Nora and Hopper run the perpetual risk of dissolving into cliché.

The reason for this is due, I think, to the awkward juxtapositions I spoke about earlier. This is a book that can’t quite decide what it wants to be: a jolly, spooky romp of a thriller, a kind of adult version of Scooby-Doo, or a serious, postmodern story about the merger of fantasy and reality. Pessl has a game stab at making it both. I enjoyed it and admired it and sometimes rolled my eyes at it, but I’m glad I read it. One final thought: if you really do like the sort of filmmaking that Cordova is supposed to specialise in, give this book a wide berth. Its edges are too soft to be satisfying. But if you like horror-lite, and thrillers, and the idea of mismatched teams brought together through force of circumstances, there’s every chance you’ll love it.

Thursday Reading Notes

It has to be notes at the end of this week rather than a review because I’m reading Eleanor Catton’s magnificent epic, The Luminaries, and I’m afraid at this point that it might just go on forever. I am enjoying it and admiring it hugely. The writing is outrageously good. But heavens, it’s long. It’s also intricately plotted and where I am (250 pages in) there are still new characters being introduced, so I don’t like to put it down and pick anything else up for a mental palate cleanse. I’m keeping all the information in my head at the moment, but a break might set free details that will turn out to be essential to understanding the outcome later on. I worry about these things.

I’m really not good with very long books and it seems to me that, generally, books are getting longer. The average length for a novel seems to be about 350-400 pages, often with 50 pages that could have usefully been edited out. I’m not sure why longer books should be so fashionable, unless they look like better value for money. But I also wonder whether the length is about increasing complexity, and the urge, so prevalent in a tortured bookworld, to grip a reader and not allow them to go.

Tuesday's goneLast week I read the second Nicci French book featuring Dr Frieda Klein, their psychotherapist-detective. It was by sheer chance that I read the first book first – another thing I’m bad at is reading in the right order, prefering to cherry pick the best books from a prolific author when given the chance. But in this case, order is essential, because the opening chapters of the second novel give away pretty much eveything that happened at the end of the first, and continue to develop the plot lines that were started. I get the feeling that if you’ve read one, you’ve got to read ‘em all, and the second book has 450 pages, because now there’s not just a murder enquiry to be developed, there’s so much else going on in Frieda Klein’s life as well.

What I really appreciate about the books is their properly disturbing atmosphere. Nicci French have done a great job of tapping into the feeling of shifting sands that comes with mental instability, how dislocating and disorienting altered mental states can be. Tuesday’s Gone begins with the discovery of a corpse, but one that’s being given tea and buns by a woman with a severe mental abnormality. It was one of the creepiest openings to a work of crime fiction that I’d read in a long while. The character of Frieda Klein is also very well drawn, showing the way that therapists both seem calmer and more in control in emotional situations than most, but also how deeply wounded they may be in other ways. The third in the series Waiting for Wednesday, is just out and yes, I have a copy. I’m hooked in now.

I’m also writing about Dodie Smith, which involves reading all four volumes of her memoirs. Clearly this was an example of Dodie getting going and not being able to stop herself – she is having such a ball describing her life, but I found to my surprise that I wasn’t having so much of a ball keeping her company. In principle I should love these books; Dodie Smith is a very funny, self-deprecating writer who had a half-life on the stage before becoming an author (and writing 101 Dalmations and I Capture the Castle if you can’t place her). After reading up on a couple of male authors who could be rather full of self-pity, I thought I’d appreciate her sparky, spirited good humour. And I do. But her ability to brush problems and difficulties aside and to come out with a stream of amusing anecdotes is perversely turning her into an uninteresting person. The memoirs are funny, yes, and somehow relentlessly shallow. At the moment, we are in the thick of World War One, but after three years of warfare, world events have scarcely warranted a mention. So caught up with her failing and foolish love affairs is Dodie, that when she watches a zeppelin raid over London from the blacked-out theatre she’s appearing in, all she sees is a delightfully pretty phenomenon in the night sky and she’s rather proud not to feel in the least bit scared. It’s quite a mindset that can trivialise WW1. But the experience of the memoirs is telling me something very interesting: we hate the dark emotions, the painful events, the fear and the sorrow. But these are the things that give us depth and make us interesting people. 800 pages of frivolity is turning out to be the hardest going of all.