It’s A Jungle Out There

orchardthiefEvery so often a non-fiction book becomes surprisingly popular, as I understand The Orchid Thief did after the release of Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman film that was very loosely based upon it. I haven’t seen the film (tell me: should I?) but I did recently read the book. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was extremely intriguing in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Basically, Susan Orlean, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, read a small article in a paper about an eccentric named John Laroche who was on trial for having attempted to steal a large quantity of ghost orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand in Florida. Curious about his motivations, Orlean went to Florida to follow the trial and to learn more about both Laroche and the world of orchid thieves and collectors (can be tricky to distinguish the two). Initially, this became a New Yorker article, and then Orleans turned it into a book, which is maybe why the story of Laroche bookends a mass of digressive but often engaging information about the history of orchid collecting, the character of the plant men that she meets in Florida, life on an Indian reservation and the nature, in all its meanings, of the state of Florida.

But first, Laroche, whom she describes as ‘a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games.’ Laroche has a history of manic obsession, beginning as a child with turtles, and moving on to Ice Age fossils, lapidary, old mirrors, tropical fish and then, finally, orchids. Each passion was intense, short-lived, and fiercely compartmentalised. After he had given away the 60 fish tanks he collected, for example, he did not go near the Atlantic, despite living so close to it, for the next 17 years. Or so he says – Orleans reports him faithfully I don’t doubt, but you do begin to wonder quite how much confabulation occurs in every one of Laroche’s stories. Still, he does appear to be one of those people to whom extreme things happen. In the run-up to stealing the orchids, he went through a particularly taxing few years. He spilled toxic pesticide on a cut and suffered irreversible heart and liver damage from it. He was in a dreadful car crash that cost him his front teeth, put his wife in a coma and killed his mother and uncle. Then he separated from his wife. Then the plant nursery he owned was decimated by severe frosts, contaminated fungicide and Hurricane Andrew. In need of work, he came to work on the Seminole reservation, starting up a nursery for them.

Obsessed by orchids, and aware of how much money could be made from a ready source of hard-to-find ghost orchids, he believed he could get around the laws that preserve endangered species. The Fakahatchee strand is Seminole land, and land belonging to Indians is supposed to be free from the usual laws in the U.S. Laroche took two Indians with him into the swamp and made them do the collecting, but as they emerged with four cotton pillowcases full of two hundred species of orchid and bromeliad they were, as the phrase goes, ‘apprehended’ and charged with theft.

Just when you think that Laroche is a unique oddity, Orleans launches into the history of orchid collecting, in which a large number of rich and greedy and obsessed patrons sent plant hunters off to the wild and dangerous parts of the globe with unreasonable demands. The plant hunters, themselves obsessed, reckless, greedy and, in the way they depleted large areas of indigenous plants, thoughtless, were happy to do their bidding. Somehow the world survived and plants trotted the globe, mostly dying en route until someone figured out the bell jar. Orchids more than any other plant seem to inspire a certain frantic passion and because they are, on the whole, a lot tougher than they look, have produced thousands of different species to keep collectors on their toes. Laroche had his own methods of maintaining a clear conscience, while going about the business of stealing plants:

he would poach only a limited number at a time and he would never strip every one off a single tree and, most important, he would be poaching so that he could help the species in the long run by propagating it in his lab and making the orchids cheap and available. He trusted himself alone to balance out pros and cons, to disregard rules and use real judgement instead. He thought that no one else in the world could see things his way because other people had attitudes that were as narrow as ribbon and they had no common sense at all. For a single-minded lunatic like John Laroche, this seemed like a very bold position to take.’

This is a book packed full of eccentrics, madmen (very few lady collectors) and con artists. And when you reach Florida, the state of outsize everything, you seem to be in a landscape that inspires crazy schemes on a huge scale. I enjoyed reading about the Florida land scam that began somewhere around 1824 with a number of wide boys selling plots of Florida that they didn’t own, and which multiplied and grew until 1975 when the main company involved was $350 million in debt.

The subsequent bankruptcy took thirteen years to settle and is considered the biggest and most complex reorganization in Florida’s corporate history, involving more than nine thousand creditors, twenty-seven thousand lot owners and five hundred thousand acres of land.’

It’s almost as if Florida invites this sort of trouble, Orleans explains. The land is permanently changing as more coastal areas are reclaimed, and what’s there is so vast and wild and uncontrollable. Nature always wins in the end, but the urge to battle her is irresistible. ‘The flat plainness of Florida doesn’t impose itself on you, so you can impose upon it your own kind of dream,’ Orleans writes. And this is the core of the book, not so much articulated as voyaged around repeatedly. Man vs. nature results in all kinds of unhealthy obsessions, all of them doomed, but all hypnotic nevertheless.

There is a lot going on in this book, huge amounts of data on offer, outlandish characters, hair-raising exploits, lots of chances to shake your head in sighing pity for the silly things people do on tenuous justification. Orleans has a repetitive style that can grate at times, but then she said a lot of things I marked up as interesting, too. An enjoyable and worthwhile read, just don’t expect as much about John Laroche as the blurb implies.

Best Books of 2014

I thought I’d read quite a few books this year, and a lot of newly-published ones, too, and yet the best-of lists remain full of titles I haven’t got around to, or have never even heard of. So while my wish list takes a battering, here’s my chance to return the favour. I know I ought to wait until the end of the month but something about this time of year just provokes the urge to tot up the balance sheet. It’s been an excellent reading year, as what follows will show.

 

mrs hemmingwayBest literary fiction of 2014

Alice McDermott – Someone

Jill Dawson – The Tell-Tale Heart

Naomi Wood – Mrs Hemingway

Jane Smiley – Some Luck

Heather O’Neill – The Girl who was Saturday Night

 

 

sisterlandBest literary fiction of 2013 I only got around to reading in 2014

Eleanor Catton – The Luminaries

Curtis Sittenfeld – Sisterland

 

Best fiction recommendation I gave Mr Litlove

Monique Roffey – Archipelago

 

izasBalladBest literary fiction in translation

Magda Szabo – Iza’s Ballad

 

Best general fiction

Liane Moriarty – Little Lies

Patricia Ferguson – Aren’t We Sisters

 

Best historical fiction

Laurie Graham – The Grand Duchess of Nowhere

Elizabeth Fremantle – Queen’s Gambit

 

Best books that made me laugh

Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Project

Rebecca Harrington – Penelope

 

stay up with meBest short stories

Tom Barbash – Stay Up With Me

 

Best crime fiction

Eva Dolan – Long Way Home

Frances Brody – Death of an Avid Reader

 

the last asylumBest memoirs of 2014

Joanna Rakoff – My Salinger Year

Barbara Taylor – The Last Asylum

 

Best memoir of any year

Hilary Mantel – Giving Up the Ghost

 

Best non-fiction about mental health issues

Christine Montross – Falling into the Fire

 

RiddleOfThe LabyrinthBest general non-fiction

Richard Benson – The Valley

Margalit Fox – The Riddle of the Labyrinth

 

What a year for the women! Only two male authors made it onto the list this year. But a formidable year overall. Before Christmas I might mention a few stinkers too, and the books I liked least this year. You have been warned.

Giving Up the Ghost

giving up the ghostI often think it’s harder to write about a book you’ve really loved than one you haven’t liked at all. Just as it takes more muscles to smile than to frown (and it really does, the other way round is a myth propagated by a conspiracy of determined optimists), it takes more firing synapses to praise than condemn. I’m tempted to say of Hilary Mantel’s memoir: It’s brilliant, go and read it, and just leave this review concise. But maybe it’s useful if I say a word or two – and give you a quote or two – in justification.

Hilary Mantel grew up just outside of Manchester, the majority of her immediate family living in two neighbouring houses, her grandmother presiding over one, her grandmother’s sister in the other. In and out of their houses all the time, she’s greeted by her great-aunt, Annie Connor:

“Hello, our ‘Ilary,”… my family have named me aspirationally, but aspiration doesn’t stretch to the ‘H’. Rather embarrassed for her, that she hasn’t spotted who I am, I slip her my name of the day. I claim I’m an Indian brave. I claim I’m Sir Launcelot. I claim I’m the parish priest and she doesn’t quibble. I give her a blessing; she says, thank you, Father.’

Yes, like many a writer, Hilary is a wildly imaginative child, believing her best friend’s father to be half-man, half-plant because of the thick, knotty veins in his forearms, able to recite whole chunks of the Knights of the Round Table from memory and convinced she will at some point transmute into a boy.

Trouble comes early: a severe and unexplained fever on her first holiday in Blackpool, when she first realises in that unarticulated childish way, that her parents aren’t happy and fears she is the cause. Forever after it seems as if she were the kind of child who simply absorbed negative energy and turned it into illness. And then there were the dull rigors of school:

I kept my bounce for a week or two, my cheerful pre-school resilience; I was a small, pale girl, post-Blackpool, but I had a head stuffed full of chivalric epigrams, and the self-confidence that comes from a thorough knowledge of horsemanship and swordplay. I knew, also, so many people who were old, so many people who were dead; I belonged to their company and lineage, not to this, and I began to want to rejoin them, without the interruptions now imposed. I couldn’t read, but neither could any of the other children, and it was a wearisome uphill trail in the company of Dick and Dora… It was dull stuff, all of it, and as my head was already full of words, whole sagas which I knew by heart, I was not convinced that it was necessary.’

The story of Hilary’s life is one packed full of ghosts, spotted or sensed here and there, flitting in and out of the margins of the narrative without much in the way of time or explanation spent on them. They just happen to crop up occasionally, and hardly ever cause her any harm, apart from one time when she was seven when something happened while she was in the garden, an experience with no defined contours that ‘wrapped a strangling hand around my life’, a sense of such evil and foreboding that: ‘Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.’ She refers to it as her ‘mauvaise quart d’heure’, and doesn’t refer to it much at all.

In any case, there is plenty of material trouble to be had with the living. Her parents, along with Hilary and her two young brothers, move into their own house up the road, and then before long so too does Jack, the man who will eventually become her stepfather. ‘You should not judge your parents,’ Mantel writes, on the grounds that they are young and unhappy and don’t know what they’re doing, except hoping for the best. But naturally, such a development caused extreme rifts within her family, and outside of it. When her parents finally split (and Hilary never saw her father again after that), Jack her stepfather evidently feels somewhat saddled with kids he didn’t ask for, a daughter the least useful of all.

But there is a terrific tensile strength in Hilary Mantel, a resolution not to be broken or bowed by the stupid, the pointless and the unwittingly cruel in life, and a determination to stand up to any bully who comes her way. These qualities are tested to the limit when, as a young woman, she transfers her degree course to Sheffield to be with the man she will eventually marry, and starts to experience nausea, sickness and atrocious pains in her legs. She goes to the doctor who, because he doesn’t have any explanation for it, sends her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnoses excess ambition (‘If I were honest with myself, he asked, wouldn’t I rather have a job in my mother’s dress shop than study law?’). He puts her on anti-depressants, whose only effect is one of ‘making print slide sideways and fall out of the book.’ Until she tries valium, which makes her fit to be tied – apparently it has the effect of enraging some people. From this point on, Hilary is given stronger and stronger drugs to counter the side-effects of whatever she has previously taken, until she ends up knocked out in a clinic on Largatil. Realising the drugs are now the problem (which no one else does), she stops taking them all and simply claims she is well. Which of course she isn’t at all. It’s not until many years later that she starts researching her illness herself and comes to believe she is suffering from endometriosis, ‘a gynaecological condition with a dazzling variety of systemic effects.’ After some torturous surgery and hormone drugs that make her pile on weight and lose her hair and her hearing, she is out of danger but also a stranger to herself. But that indomitable courage never really goes away: ‘Bald, odd-shaped, deaf but not defeated, I sat down and wrote another book.’

Although the memoir is framed by the act of selling two homes and buying one, the real heart of the book is in these central sections, in which damage is done to Hilary Mantel, inadvertently for the most part, but enough to make her a woman of many lives, in other words, a writer.

I am not writing to solicit any special sympathy. People survive much worse and never put pen to paper… There are other people who, like me, have had the roots of their personality torn up. You need to find yourself, in the maze of social expectation, the thickets of memory: just which bits of you are left intact? I have been so mauled by medical procedures, so sabotaged and made over, so thin and so fat, that sometimes I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being’.

Giving Up the Ghost is a book that takes you by the throat and does not let go, written with consummate stylishness and a clever, teasing wit. I don’t think I’ve read a better account of what it’s like to be a child, the terrible disappointments that come with grasping the essence of growing up as it is sold to the small and helpless. The parts about chronic illness are hypnotic. The ending, a sort of coda in which Hilary Mantel sells her old homes and buys a new one, wasn’t as intriguing or endearing, but who cares? The rest is amazing. A final thought: in the book, she writes that she’d never seen the point of memoir, but writing her own had taught her something new: how to let the story arise, how life eventually revealed its own shape, if you let it, and she hoped this would help with her fiction. And what did she go on to write next? Yup, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. I guess it was useful after all.

Thursday Reading Notes

Looking back over the past month or so I see that my reading has been all over the place, rather like the golden rose in our back garden that will suddenly shoot two or three long suckers out in random directions. There have been distinct obsessions lately and quite a lot of books read that I haven’t mentioned here.

eva dolanAs ever, once we’ve finally put an edition of Shiny out, I take a fortnight’s vacation in crime. Of several titles I read, the standout was Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home. I picked it up because it was set in Peterborough, a town not far from where I live, and which does seem to have featured on the news lately as a Place Where Bad Things Happen. Eva Dolan’s novel was brilliant, focusing on the large immigrant population in Peterborough and the dangerous drudgery of their lives. Although it was a much darker book than I usually read, the writing was excellent and the situation so fresh and contemporary I almost expected to read about the crime in the local papers. Gripping and pacy, I really rated this one.

the telling errorI also read my first Sophie Hannah, The Telling Error. I’m late to this particular writer and initially I wasn’t at all sure I’d like her. The murder was committed in a ludicrous way, which I could have forgiven had her main detective not rushed in with a series of interpretations that were even more implausible. However, as the story got into its stride and the complexities of the plot unfolded and were ironed out, I was lost in the story in a wholly good way. I’m not going to say anything about this one – Mr Litlove was driving me to lunch in Saffron Walden, and I spent the entire half hour recounting the plot in a way that even confused me long before we reached our destination, and I like to think I can make a reasonable job of a synopsis. I was left with even greater respect for Sophie Hannah’s powers of narrative organisation. Heaven only knows this story was complicated, but I followed it perfectly at the time.

Interestingly enough, I was at a book event in town on Tuesday where Sophie Hannah and her mother, Adele Geras were both speaking. Sophie Hannah was talking about her new Poirot novel, The Monogram Murders, and how it came into being. Apparently her agent had a brainwave that she would be the perfect person to write a continuation novel for Agatha Christie, and by strange coincidence, the estate actually felt the time was ripe for one (having shuddered at the prospect for many a year). The Christie family is apparently delighted with Sophie’s book. Amusingly, Sophie said that usually when you publish a novel, you have to brace yourself for some moaning, but the good thing about this novel was that she was inundated with complaints on twitter as soon as it was announced she’d be writing it. So the publication had been fairly uncontentious by comparison.

I was actually there, though, for her mother. I’m interviewing Adele Geras for Shiny New Books towards the end of the month, and trying to zip through a portion of her huge back catalogue before we meet. This means unusually for me, I’m reading YA fiction – her rewrite of Greek mythology in Troy – as well as more romantic novels. Her latest, Cover Your Eyes, and one from a few years back, A Hidden Life.

TheLastAsylumMy real obsession at the moment, however, is with memoirs. I’ve been reading some utterly brilliant ones. A few weeks back I finished Barbara Taylor’s account of her psychotic breakdown in The Last Asylum, where she was put for want of anything better to do with her. Barbara Taylor writes so engagingly and so honestly about her mental collapse, I properly could not put the book down. I am never quite sure why reviewers so often praise a lack of self-pity in memoirs, when quite often those writing them have a great deal to be sorry about. But in this book, Taylor’s powerful, straightforward and lucid voice is just wonderful. Throughout this time she was seeing a psychoanalyst – indeed the implication is that therapy forced her to confront her problems without being able to prevent her lapse into psychosis – and essentially this relationship becomes the spine of the story. Taylor is mean to her therapist in an eye-watering way, but he hangs on in there for her and eventually becomes her route to sanity.

Also utterly, breathtakingly brilliant was Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up The Ghost. I’d better not say much about this other than I loved it and hope to review it properly soon.

zeno's conscienceFinally, I am plodding through Zeno’s Conscience, an Italian Modernist hit from the early part of the 20th century. I’m reading it because it has such a good story behind it. It was the third self-published novel by its author, Italo Svevo (whose real name was Ettore Schmitz), and each of his books had appeared to an indifferent critical reception before sinking without trace. He’d given up trying to publish anything for 25 years before writing his last, and he believed his best, book. When it, too, looked like it would disappear unnoticed, he sent a copy to his old friend and one-time English tutor, James Joyce. Joyce was enthusiastic and told him to send copies to prominent French critics that he knew. They took it up with excitement and the novel then catapulted Italo Svevo to brief, late fame. He absolutely loved it, all his dreams had come true, but he only lived a few more years to enjoy it. Generally I can get into any book if I make the effort, but this one is resisting me quite stubbornly. I think it’s a gender problem, as the novel is the story of a lazy, cowardly, morally dubious man who spins everything to put himself in a better light. He is the Homer Simpson of the early 20th century, a man who may not always be right, but who is never wrong. I know he’s meant to be unsympathetic, but his torturous meandering thoughts do sometimes grate upon my nerves. Still, I will plod on.

I shouldn’t really ask, but if you have recommendations for excellent memoirs, just whisper them in the comments below.