Three Types of Awe

wind in the willowsA couple of weeks ago audible suckered me in with a big sale, and I found myself purchasing The Wind in the Willows for a bargain price. I had never read this book as either a child or a mother, although I must have seen countless bits of adaptations on the television. It did have undeniable charm, with Ratty, Moley, Badger and Toad all as I had gathered they would be from osmosis of the general culture. The rather delightful mash-up of fantasy and reality gave me that frivolous feeling, and I couldn’t help but ponder foolish questions, like, who was manufacturing and supplying small armaments to water rats, and how could Mr Toad brush his hair? But I did realise that was beside the point. If you want to read a rational book, you don’t pick one that features talking animals.

After a while, I realised that Wind in the Willows is essentially made up of two different books, which is why it made no great name for itself until A. A. Milne filleted out the plotline concerning the exploits of Toad and turned it into a successful play. The other side of the story is harder to summarize, but it essentially concerns Rat and Mole as they experience certain iconic emotional states – the experience of friendship, for instance, and the pull of home, as well as the lure of wanderlust. Because I was listening to this book at night when I’d gone to bed, it was inevitable that I should drift at certain points, and so it was with some sense of disorientation that I came to in the middle of the chapter entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.

In this episode, Ratty and Mole have been searching all night for the otter’s lost son, Portly. They take to the river in their boat, and finally, in the mystical light of dawn, come upon young Portly, curled up asleep at the feet of the great Pan. The narration goes completely bonkers at this point, evoking what I eventually understood was a state of divine awe. And it occurred to me to wonder whether awe of this nature, the experience of the sublime, is ever present in contemporary children’s books? Awe seems so much more secular these days, if it exists at all. I couldn’t help but feel that if Portly had been discovered thus in a more up to date book, Pan would have found himself under a paedophilia charge.

the magus of hayI found myself thinking about awe again, however, whilst reading a very recently published crime fiction novel. Phil Rickman’s The Magus of Hay features Merrily Watkins, a diocesan exorcist working from Hereford cathedral. This is apparently the twelfth novel in a series concerning Merrily, which has an interest in alternative spirituality, paganism, and generally unexplained potentially superstitious religious occurrences. Merrily herself held a somewhat wishy-washy position, a good Christian woman who comes to offer a few prayers for those who feel troubled by the dark side, uncertain herself whether they will do any good or not. However, Phil Rickman’s interest in all matters of the occult and alternative spirituality was clearly heavily researched, respectful, curious and exploratory. He provided a lot of information, and whilst the tone is essentially skeptical, this was a much more serious novel than your average outing into the paranormal.

I’d picked the book up originally because the main story was set in Hay-on-Wye where a couple are opening a secondhand bookshop which turns out to have a disturbing atmosphere. Meanwhile, not far away, an elderly man is found drowned in the pool of a waterfall. The young police detective who finds him admits to the investigating officer that as a kid, they all used to call him a wizard and dare each other to run up to his house. It’s a long and quite complicated story that eventually draws these events together and I enjoyed it, though I’m not sure I’d rush to get another in the series, mostly because Merrily didn’t win my heart. But it was well done, and I did appreciate the treatment of the supernatural.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you about my Uncle Graham, have I? Well, I do love my crime fiction, but Uncle Gray is a good excuse to read a steady stream of it. He is a retired widower and a voracious reader; he’s also a man of economical ways, which see him, in winter, in bed reading every evening and night with his scarf and hat and gloves on. This tickles me, probably because I aspire to much the same sort of retirement myself, only with central heating. Well, once Uncle Gray had worked his way through my dad’s not inconsiderable library of crime fiction, my parents asked me if I had any books I could lend him. Did I have books! So now I keep the crime I read to one side, supplemented by the review copies I’m sent, and goodness knows what Uncle Gray makes of some of them (The Magus of Hay will be a good case in point), but he’s never been known to complain.

this boy's lifeA last burst of awe, of a brief but powerful nature: Tobias Wolff. I’ve been on a reading kick of his writing lately and He. Is. Amazing. I read This Boy’s Life, then some of his short stories. The writing is genius – pure, clean, completely without pretention, but he says so much. And he’s funny too. Why is it so hard to write about the books that make the most impact on you? I have no words, but much awe.

 

Shiny Summer!

Shiny New Books Edition 6 is now live, hurray!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245It’s a packed programme over there, as always, with loads of reviews of fiction, non-fiction and reprinted books, as well as the BookBuzz section which has all kinds of intriguing interviews and features.

Okay, where to send you first? Well, given I’ve been so absent from this blog, I’ll link to a few reviews of my favourite books this time.

Probably the most moving and engaging book I read for this edition was One Life by Kate Grenville, a biography of her mother and a deft social history of the 20th century in Australia.

But you should definitely check out Threads,  Julia Blackburn’s quest for the lost painter and embroiderer, John Craske, a fisherman whose experience of chronic illness turned him to art.

As for fiction, I probably enjoyed most Paradise City by Elizabeth Day, a four-handed narrative between disparate London-dwellers whose lives interact in surprising ways.

I’ll also mention Early Warning by Jane Smiley, second in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. I loved it, but you really do need to read the first volume first.

As for my own section, BookBuzz, there’s so much there that I really loved. Check out Anne Goodwin’s fascinating account of creating her unusual main protagonist in her debut novel Sugar and Snails.

And oh, choices! How about Tony’s account of being on the shadow jury for this year’s IFFP?

Finally, the book we’ve chosen for book club in August is Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, so now you’ve got six weeks to read it if  you’d like to join in with our discussion on the 20th August. Do hope you will!

 

 

 

 

All Together Now

gill hornbyI do wonder what it must be like to be Gill Hornby. Not only does she have a famous brother to live up to, but she has now decided to write books in more or less the same generic space, thus leaving herself open to endless comparisons with him. If it had been me, I’d have changed my name, but given entertainment’s current adoration of the already-recognisable, perhaps it is considered to be a tick in the right publicity box. This is in some ways a bit of an echoey book, reminding me of the feel-good film, The Full Monty, except with choirs rather than strippers, so, more decorum, less radicalism, but definitely a book that wants to leave you with a smile on your face.

All Together Now, is about a community choir in the anonymous commuter belt town of Bridgeford, a place in other words, where community is hard pushed to flourish. When the novel opens, the choir’s beloved leader, Constance, has been seriously injured in a car crash, and those who remain are somewhat adrift without her. Responsibility falls on the shoulders of Annie, a 50-something mother-of-three tending a painfully empty nest. Even her husband, James, has become caught up in a tricky law case that necessitates him spending his weeks in London. Annie is a Salt of the Earth type, the woman who remembers all the names of the children her children were at school, with, the woman who bothers to vacuum the carpet of community areas, the woman who takes half an hour to walk down the main street because she knows everyone working in the charity shops (‘Fortunately, she was a social athlete in peak condition.’)

Annie drums up new members for the choir with a great deal of arm-twisting. She coerces single mother, Tracy, who has only scorn for communal activities but a voice the choir needs, and newly-divorced Bennett, a man who is uptight and uncool and socially a tad inept (‘he found himself wishing [his ex-wife] had left him a helpful little folder, like landladies did for holiday rentals: a starter information pack for the rest of his own life.’) However, he also has a voice trained from childhood as a choral scholar. Throw in some extras – Jazzie, the council estate child who wants to save herself for The X-Factor, Lewis and his disabled daughter, Katy, elderly codgers Pat and Lynn (think the two old men up on the balcony in The Muppets) and we are all set for social comedy.

In fact, there is a lot of rather witty and admirable writing in the novel. The multi-purpose building where the choir hold their meetings, for instance, is described rather amusingly:

The stolid, mixed-material, mongrel-architectural Coronation Hall sat back from the corner of Church Street in an apron of its own car park and stared out at the town like a plain and disapproving old aunt. It eschewed comfort – its windows were high, its floors dull and dusty, its walls a distempered cream – and offered only the basic barrier to the elements. A bit of weather, in its opinion, never hurt anybody; if it could talk, it would tell you to put on a vest.’

And its also excellent on the way that community spirit has withered and died in so many small towns. When the local Talent Show is held, Tracey observes the sparse attendance and imagines ‘the rest of the town down there, sunk into its armchairs, with its backs to them.’ Those bustling, extrovert planners and muckers-in like Annie are portrayed as both essential to community life and also somewhat ridiculous, easy to mock. But Gill Hornby is astute in the way she sows her seeds of doubt; what if all this keeping-to-ourselves business, safely barricaded as it may be, ultimately ends in loneliness? Visiting the hospital to serenade Constance with the choir, Tracey observes Annie interacting with her group of bed-ridden friends and remarks that:

they were all Annies, these women: doers of their bit, thinkers of others, busiers of bodies. They were all Annies and they were all knackered. Who was going to take over from them all, when they couldn’t do it any more?…. [But] at least they were not alone. They were ageing and they were knackered but, clearly, they still mattered. Their beds were surrounded by cards and flowers and home-made cakes. The primary school had done a frieze for the retired librarian; the Sunday school had made a little garden in a box for the church volunteer.’

Tracy, as you may be gathering, is the focal point for change; she has to let go of her teenage son, embrace community activities, give up the secret she’s keeping and stop being too cool for school. She’s a great character and well-drawn, but Gill Horby has an odd way of not quite nailing her scenes, particularly in the first half of the book, so we don’t get to witness exactly what makes the difference. We tend to catch up with Tracey as she contemplates her altered feelings, which isn’t as satisfying. Also the writing is at times too frenetically jolly, bouncing us along Tiggerishly, subsuming all events to the comedy. And of course the funniest things often come hard on the heels of what’s sad and upsetting, or too poignant, a defence against emotion and a relief from it. But there’s not much light and shade here.

However, what Gill Horby does best in this book is describe the life-affirming vitality, the sheer joy, that singing in a choir can produce, and she does this in spades. Apparently you can download the soundtrack to the novel, as it were, and I’ll bet a lot of readers won’t be able to resist. Hornby does have an eye for a catchy song. All in all this is a fun, warm-hearted novel with some laugh-out-loud lines. Steer clear if you want a bit of darkness, but hand out to anyone who needs to stop singing the blues.

 

The Global Phenomenon With The Long Title

harry quebertDo you ever feel that the nectar of hype comes in a poisoned chalice? Back in October 2012, a novel written by a 28-year-old Swiss man that had been awarded a couple of prestigious French literary prizes caused the most immense stir at Frankfurt, its one-man publisher selling the rights to over 30 different countries (with the book to be translated into anything between 32 and 37 languages, reports vary). People at the fair called it a global phenomenon but couldn’t quite remember its name, referring to it in their excitement as ‘the French novel with the long title.’

And then I imagine the publicity mill went into overdrive and comparisons with Roth, Franzen and Bellow were bandied around, and inevitably it all went downhill from there. Reviews of the English translation by Sam Taylor have been decidedly mixed, with the American ones the most caustic. ‘It’s the sort of novel you recommend to a grieving friend or coworker out on jury duty—somebody with temporarily disabled critical faculties trying to forget who or where they are’ the New Yorker said sniffily. But if they weren’t expecting Roth or Bellow, then I should think those on jury duty were pretty glad to have it.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a slick and entertaining piece of literary fun with mirrors, set in an appealling Twin Peaks landscape. And so long as we don’t get any more carried away than that, no one is going to have their expectations hurt. The narrator, Marcus Goldman, is a young writer whose first novel has been an outrageous success. Once he’s run through a ton of royalties and sucked up enough syrupy recognition to feel bilious he finds himself on deadline for a second novel without a single idea in his head. Facing humiliation and a nasty law suit, he decides to visit his much-loved college mentor, Harry Quebert, in his seaside home at Goose Cove, New Hampshire. It doesn’t do a great deal for his writing, but the reunion is good for Marcus’s soul. He was a callow and cunning youth, too hooked on achievement to understand the notion of quality, but Harry knocked some sense into him (literally, in the boxing ring). And it’s Harry’s career as a celebrated novelist that Marcus longs to emulate.

However, not long after this visit, Marcus receives the stunning news that Harry is in prison. A body has been dug up in the grounds of his house, the corpse of Nola Kellergan who went missing thirty-three years previously. Alongside her in the grave is a manuscript copy of Harry’s most successful novel, The Origin of Evil. Hop back to August 1975 when Nola disappeared and we find out that she was having a passionate love affair with Harry that provided the inspiration for his novel. Worse still, Harry was waiting for her in a hotel room further up the coast that night but she never showed; they were intending to elope to Canada, for Nora was only fifteen and they both rightly feared scandal and jail.

Steadfastly refusing to believe in Harry’s guilt, Marcus returns to Goose Cove to undertake his own investigation. He’s known to the locals and he has Harry’s memories to guide him. But he’s also at the centre of the media storm, another famous face to add to the mix, and his editor and agent are leaning hard on him to turn out a book on the murder case as fast as he can. We are of course reading the book – or some version of it – that Marcus will eventually write. Except that this book in our hands includes all manner of revisions as twists and turns develop in the investigation, theories come together and then fall apart, and characters are unexpectedly seen in a new light. If you appreciate the metatextual level, you’ll enjoy the subtleties of Dicker’s plotting, but you don’t have to look at it like that. In a straightforward way, it’s a clever piece of crime fiction that keeps you guessing throughout its 600 pages.

Given that Joel Dicker clearly likes a bit of irony, I hope he doesn’t mind that his homage to a certain kind of American noir story is probably designed to annoy a lot of American readers. There’s all that metatextual stuff, and then a 15-year-old femme fatale (though how we see Nora changes constantly across the book) and then a whole bunch of archetypal characters. There’s a gruff and aggressive detective (who mellows), a dodgy rich businessman and his maimed chauffeur/henchman (quality of life destroyed in a random attack by thugs one night), a social-climbing café owner and her hen-pecked husband and Marcus’s crazy Jewish mother, who inhabits her role to such a degree of intensity that she makes no sense whatsoever. It may be no more than coincidence, but the contemporary French novels I’ve read in the past ten years or so seem quite comfortable with archetypes. Amélie Nothomb, one time star of the French literary firmament said in interview that

when we create we’re totally in tune with this creative pole that’s full of archetypes and which is, in fact, totally ridiculous, but perhaps also at the origins of life.’

I thought that was quite an interesting statement, but you’ll know where you stand on it. There’s also rather a lot of cringe-inducing aphorisms concerning the art of writing. For instance: ‘If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.’ But this is a narrative designed to be read fast, and if you zip past them at the right speed, they barely register at all.

So, let’s have a last look at the credit and debit sheet. If you want finely-drawn characterisation, exquisite sentence creation and no Lolitas, then this is not the book for you. If you like clever plotting, pacy storytelling and enjoy satires, homages and parodies, then it’s well worth a try. But whatever you do, don’t let the hype guide you; no good will come of thinking Jonathan Franzen might have written this.