Finally, I Can Tell You

There have been good and bad reasons why I’ve been so quiet in the blogworld lately, and finally I can tell you about the good reason.SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245I’ve been involved in getting a new online review magazine off the ground, and on Monday 7th April, Shiny New Books will be going live, ready to tell you what to read next and why.

When we first began thinking about the magazine, we thought there was an absence of a) places that brought lots of book bloggers together and b) nowhere that you could read up on all the latest releases that you see all the time in book shops and libraries, without knowing if they are any good or not.

So we decided to publish a quarterly magazine (covering new books out from January to the start of April in the first edition) and have picked only those to review that we loved, enjoyed and were entertained by. We’re based on UK publication dates, but the book world is so globalised these days that they aren’t so very different to anywhere else.

The first edition carries over 70 reviews, features, interviews, and behind-the-scenes glimpses of writing and publishing. We’re covering as wide a range of books as we can, and as wide a range of publishers too. There’s also going to be some pretty fantastic competitions (I want the prize myself for the first one). The only thing we’re not doing is supporting amazon.

The editors behind Shiny New Books are all bloggers you will probably know – Annabel, Simon, Harriet and me. But we couldn’t have done it without the fabulous bloggers who also contributed reviews – a huge thanks to them. We’ll be looking for more bloggers to write for us, because we also want to make the magazine a showcase of the best book writing on the blogosphere.

So, do sign up for our newsletter, which will alert you to each edition when it appears. We’ll have a mini-issue in May with additional reviews, and the email newsletter will be monthly-ish with competitions and discussion threads and all sorts of booky goodness. To sign up, do visit Shiny New Books, or like our facebook page, or twitter feed.

It’s been a really rocky few months chez Litlove, and I have been pretty thankful at times to have such fine distraction as looking at the nth version of a logo, deciding how to organize menu bars and figuring out possible channels for publicity. I’m here to tell you that nothing focuses the mind like a pile of seven books that need to be read and reviewed to a deadline. I must say a big thank you to the other editors, too, who have been a joy to work with, and not nagged me once for being a bit scatterbrained at times There was one big boo-boo that I made, but I’ll tell you about that next Monday when we launch.

The World of Angela Thirkell

angela thirkellIt’s curious the way that some of the most amusing and comforting writers develop their voice out of personal tragedy. Any reader might be forgiven for thinking that Angela Thirkell led the same sort of easy, untroubled life of the gentry – with visits from the vicar, summer fêtes up at the village’s manor house and children mostly packed off to boarding schools – that the protagonists of her novels enjoy. Her early connections were unusually good: one of her grandfathers was Edward Burne-Jones and she could count among her cousins Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin. But by the time she began to write, she was no stranger to hard circumstances. Her first marriage was to a singer, James Campbell McInnes, who turned out to be a violent drunk. She had two sons with him, and a daughter who did not survive, before divorcing him in 1917 in a blaze of undesirable publicity. She married again, this time an Australian engineer and army officer, the splendidly named George Lancelot Allnut Thirkell. They went to live in Melbourne, where she had a third son, but the lower middle class life style she had to adopt was not at all congenial to Angela. Claiming it was nothing more than a holiday, she packed up the sons that would come with her and sailed again for England, never to return. And never to marry again: ‘It is very peaceful with no husbands,’ she was quoted as declaring.

Forced to generate some income of her own, she turned to writing, and published her first novel at the age of 43. She soon found she could publish a novel a year and had almost forty to her name before she died.

Last summer I read Wild Strawberries, and just this morning I finished High Rising, the first two reissues by Virago. They belong in the same stable as Dodie Smith, and E. F. Benson, as the gentlest form of social satire. She has been compared to Barbara Pym, but Pym had a great deal more to say, of a sharply insightful nature, about loneliness. Angela Thirkell is just there to guide her characters through the mildest storms in village tea cups, before the inevitable and charming happy ending, easily effected when marriage proposals fall so readily from the lips of her male protagonists. In High Rising, single mother and author of ‘good bad books’, Laura Morland (Thirkell in semi-disguise) is drawn into a web of complications surrounding the new secretary of her dear friend, George Knox. The secretary, Una Grey, is a scheming sort with an unbalanced temper and a tendency to send poison pen notes, who is longing to marry some unsuspecting meal ticket. Laura and her saintly friend, Anne Todd, step in to prevent George from a typical Thirkellian fate of marrying in a deep state of inattention – a sort of unconscious coupling that must set up a precedent for Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest conscious uncoupling, perhaps.

None of this plot particularly matters. Angela Thirkell sets out to amuse, with Laura’s state of mind legible in the state of her hair – one particularly taxing morning leaves her looking ‘like Medusa on a heavy washing-day’ and her relationship to her small son Tony, a mix of adoration and irritation, offering wonderful scenes at his boarding school, notably a boxing match where ‘shrimp-like figures’ approach each other with ‘downward clawing motions’ from arms that looked ‘about as strong as boiled macaroni’ before the gong sounds and they ‘fled back to their corners, where they tasted real glory, lolling majestically, arms outspread on the ropes and feet dangling well off the ground.’ In fact, the less that happens, the better Angela Thirkell is at describing it. The essence of her world is a kind of Edwardian nursery, where silliness occurs because of short tempers and wounded pride, but there is always someone sensible on hand to restore order. As in the case of George Knox’s lonely approach to his house ‘which occasionally caused one of Mr Knok’s maids to have hysterics and give notice. But being local girls, their mothers usually made them take it back.’

high rising

Servants are intriguing in Thirkell’s novels. While their masters and betters restrain themselves at all times to the most tepid expression of emotions, the mildest of manners and the most distantly tender of relations (or as Hermione Lee phrases it: ‘these light, witty, easygoing books turn out to be horrifying studies in English repression’) the servants are there to tell it like it really is, with strong language, violent emotions and cherished paranoia. They may argue and shout, act compulsively and capriciously, but their emotional stamina lasts well beyond that of their employers. The most disturbing parts of Thirkell’s books are the out-of-date attitudes towards foreigners and the lower-classes, but if her main protagonists patronise their servants, it’s nothing in comparison to the contemptuous patronage they are forced to suffer in return.

It’s a particular and distinct world that Angela Thirkell writes about, one in which small boys want nothing more than to accompany their elders on a hunt, one where kindly doctors don’t charge fees to their favourite patients, where people are generally good and kind and helpful to one another and things work out just fine, thanks to the benevolent intervention of fate. And for the most part, Thirkell’s humour is exceptionally tender, born of loving amusement. It’s a strange, lost world, but a gentle one.

We have to feel for her, then, that one of her sons, Colin McInnes, was a bohemian bisexual who grew up to write books about everything his mother could not bear: ‘urban squalor, racial issues, bisexuality, drugs, anarchy and decadence. He found her novels ‘totally revolting’, a ‘sterile, life-denying vision of our land’.* Unsurprisingly the two of them hated one another, and she cut him out of her will (though she never said anything unpleasant about his books). When we read a Thirkell novel, we get to blindside the uncomfortable, challenging elements of life – that’s the entire point of reading them, to take time out of reality. You do wonder what it must have been like for Thirkell to live there in her imagination all the time.

* Hermione Lee wrote a very entertaining and perceptive essay entitled ‘Good Show: The Life and Works of Angela Thirkell’, which appears in her book Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing. The quote comes from this essay.

 

Someone

SomeoneAlice McDermott is one of those writers who make you wonder how on earth they do it. Every sentence in her deceptively simple novel, Someone, is written with perfect economy and a minimum of literary bling, and yet the effect she creates is powerful and intense. In this brief and unshowy 232 page novel, we travel through the life of Irish Catholic immigrant, Marie, from her devotion, aged 7, to her father, a newspaper man who likes a drink a bit too much, to her own old, old age, alone and almost blind in a care home. If this sounds bleak, it isn’t. Mortality is a guiding light through the episodic narrative, but that light is joyful, tender and illuminating. Mortality is not a reason to despise humanity, or recoil in horror at what becomes of them, but a reason instead to pay close attention to life in the moment.

The character of Marie springs from the pages, especially in her early years. Her quiet self-containment and the glasses she wears as a child belie her stubborn and contrarian nature, defying her mother outright when she decides to teach her how to make bread, because ‘Once you learn to do it, you’ll be expected to do it.’ She loves easily and deeply, though there aren’t that many people who appear over the course of her life to whom she gives her love. There is a tight if unexplained and unexplainable bond between her and her older brother, Gabe, the clever one of the family who has a brief career as a priest before his enigmatic departure from the church. And she has a satisfying career with the affable undertaker, Mr Fagin, working as a kind of hostess at wakes and funerals. This gives her – and the reader – a point of convergence in the narrative where the fates of many secondary characters passing through the pages finally come to rest. Mr Fagin, who is trying to reclaim his good name from Dickens (an author he loves) presses David Copperfield onto Marie, and typically she hands it back to him unread, ten years later when she marries.

The wisdom that she would rather take in comes from Mr Fagin’s old mother who lives upstairs, visited regularly by the Sisters of Charity. Marie comes to sit with them sometimes and bring them news from the funeral parlour. The elderly women then provide their own obituaries for the newly dead, with a kindness and insight that charms Marie, ‘an eager, industrious, even entertaining pleasantness in all of it.’ The humanity in their storytelling is a crystallisation of McDermott’s own, the way that ‘she and her compatriots would lean together to tell as best they could the story of the life – breathing words onto cold embers was how I sometimes thought of it, and, one way or another, getting them to glow.’

The small immigrant New York neighbourhood where Marie grows up becomes one of the characters in the novel, redolent of an era where Big Lucy, the mentally disabled local bully, is locked away in the asylum as soon as she develops signs of sexuality, and where homosexuality is a cause for shame or contempt. Yet there is also a very different but potent form of acceptance on offer; Billy Corrigan, blinded in the war, is the chosen umpire for the local boys’ games of stickball, and the early accidental death of Pegeen, part Syrian, part Irish, is understood to be a normal tragedy, not something to be met with righteous outrage. In this tight-knit community there are harsh judgements and irrational rules, but there is also solidarity and tenderness of a kind we hardly know about any more.

All the events of Marie’s life – her first, failed love affair, her marriage, her excruciating first experience of childbirth, provide Alice McDermott with an opportunity to bring out the sensually vivid and powerful in the every day, in a way that is constantly brimming with significance. The narrative is episodic and not neatly chronological, yet there is an internal rightness about the way we follow Marie’s life, a reassurance almost that what is impenetrable in childhood will be experienced – even if only through memory – with fresh insight in later years. Puzzles will be solved, at least partially, wounds will heal, for all the everyday crises and sorrows that beset her characters, there will be time that passes, bringing solace and new threats, new challenges to overlay the old. Holding her newborn son in her arms, Marie understands ‘I was a mother now and all the terrible things that could maul a child, snatch him from the world, had bared their teeth and trained their yellow eyes on me. The baby was warmly asleep against my shoulder.’

This is a beautiful, compact book that manages to encompass all of life with the lightest of touches, the simplest of details. It was an amazing reading experience, and I don’t know how Alice McDermott does 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.