Listening to the Curate’s Egg

After listening to so many audio books so far this year, I’ve reached the conclusion that a book comes across very differently when you use your ears rather than your eyes. You can’t speed up at fast bits (or dull bits), nor can you go back and reread, or savour any particular sentence. The story is delivered at an unrelentingly steady pace, dialogue is properly dialogue, and I found I was more consciously aware of waiting for the plot to unfold (I confess to being someone who skips ahead at tense moments to see what happens). Add to that a narrator whose voice(s) may or may not delight you and the book is forced to undergo a far more rigorous trial than in the act of reading.

the goldfinchFor these reasons, I think The Goldfinch is a book that it’s probably much better to read than to listen to. It travels at such a slow pace that some parts of it were almost excruciating and when I finally got to the end, I felt like I’d scaled a virtual Everest. I was glad to have made it, though, as it was an interesting book if not (for me, I’m afraid) a good one. I can see why some reviewers have described it as a children’s adventure story for adults, as there are a lot of transgressive or criminal events and very little in the way of consequences. Theo’s drug taking, for instance, never really affects him, and as for the painting, well, I won’t give spoilers but it was all very slick and implausible. Though Theo was perhaps too realistic as an inarticulate and bewildered adolescent. I did salute Donna Tartt for managing to write such a huge novel around a character whose main contribution to any verbal exchange is ‘What?’ Listening to all those ‘What?’s’ got a little old. I’ve had a teenage son of my own.

Essentially, I thought that The Goldfinch was four books and a coda. The first part, with the explosion in the museum, the death of Theo’s mother and removal of the painting, and his time spent with the Barbour family, was the story of The Goldfinch itself, the original part of the story. After that came a series of rewrites: the time with his father was a version of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; then New York and the furniture restorer, James Hobart (Hobie), was a mash-up of Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop and Great Expectations; followed by the extraordinary Amsterdam part which was pure Bugsy Malone. And then, surprisingly, after 650 pages of pure showing, we get 70 pages of tell, where the meaning of the novel is explained. And yet…. well, the explanation didn’t fit the events. The idea at the end is that life is awful, but art is redemptive, and Theo claims that owning the painting has helped him through a terrible time and art has given him some desperately needed solace. But where has this solace occurred? Throughout the story, Theo barely looks at the painting, it causes him terrible guilt and worry, and from 200 or so pages in, it’s locked up in storage where he never goes. Only its return at the end of the novel seems to free him, and suddenly he goes from this tongue-tied, semi-comatose sufferer to an articulate philosopher, with his life meaningful and under his control again.

Where the novel did intrigue me a lot (besides Boris, who is a great character because he is one of those hero-boys who get away with everything and can carry and subsume any amount of trouble and strain), is in its depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder. Theo’s shell-shocked demeanour, his longing for calm nothingness which translates into an urgent need to lose himself, and the whole sense that his life has somehow gone wrong and can’t be mended are all symptomatic of severe trauma. I remember when I was a child my mother used to say, if you make that face and the wind changes, you’ll stay that way (which fascinated me because I could never hold my face long enough in an expression to check this out). Well, the wind that changes Theo is the blast from a bomb, and afterwards he is stuck as the good-for-nothing miscreant he felt on that day at the museum. All the other parts of his personality seem to have been blown out of him. Having lost the good mother and getting stuck with the wicked father doesn’t help him either, even though he finds alternative loving parents in Hobie and Mrs Barbour.  Nothing is enough. His adoration of Pippa and Pippa’s own journey through healing were also very interesting. If I’d been editor of that novel, I’d have cut the ridiculous Bugsy Malone part and had the relationship between Theo and Pippa play out properly, against his false-self relationship with Kitsey. They could maybe have really found a way through art and love to health again. But that would have made for a very different sort of book, wouldn’t it? Art is better than life, Tartt tells us, and what happens is all very artful and not very lifelike, and the novel has a certain atmosphere and taste because of that.

sophie and the sibyl2Another book of mixed value I listened to was Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker, a post-modern romp around the back end of George Eliot’s life. I had a rocky start with this one, because the narrator’s croaky voice for George Eliot (supposed to signify old age) was not pleasing. But then I decided I could live with it and I ought to find out what happened at the end. The focus of the novel is on Max Duncker, younger of the two Duncker brothers who are George Eliot’s German publishers. Wolfgang wants to secure the rights to Middlemarch at a good rate and so he dispatches his charming but dissolute brother to wait on George Lewes and his common law wife at the spa in Homburg. Also there with her father is Max’s intended, the young and vivacious Sophie, Countess von Hahn. Sophie is a huge fan of George Eliot, but a series of unfortunate events – including Sophie’s experiences at the gaming table turning up as the opening scene in Daniel Deronda – turn Sophie against the older woman. Max falls under the spell of Marian (or Mary Ann) Lewes’ clear grey eyes and her fierce intelligence and forms a bond with her that will also cause trouble. This is a light-hearted, good-natured book that is written with such dash and verve that if you were reading it, you might not notice that not much happens.  There’s no profound meaning to the story, either, except maybe a reproach to George Eliot for punishing her young and beautiful female characters (the implication being that the less-than-lovely Marian is jealous). Perhaps for this reason, Sophie never has to face the music and develops into a tantruming diva by the end of the book and is very irritating. But essentially it was all very pleasant and there was much incidental enjoyment, if the whole thing lacked punch.

the lacuna; barbara kingsolver

the lacuna; barbara kingsolver

Finally I must mention Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, which I’d been looking forward to for ages. This is the story of Harrison William Shephard, a would-be writer who falls in with Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera when he is a young boy. I can’t tell you a great deal about what happens because the narration was so annoying that it took up all my attention. The novel is read by its author, and while Barbara Kingsolver writes like an angel, she reads like a primary school teacher. I’m going to have another shot at this one in book form, where I think it will be much more enticing.

a spool of blue threadBy far and away the best books I listened to were those by Anne Tyler. I listened to Back When We Were Grown-Ups and A Spool of Blue Thread and they were brilliant from start to finish. Apparently Anne Tyler rewrites her novels four or five times, and one of those times she reads the book out loud in order to remove any ‘false notes’. This clearly works. They made me want to reread everything I own by her, and I might just do that.

 

Ten Brilliant Women Writers You May Not Have Heard Of

Okay so my tooth comes out next Thursday, and I don’t want to think about that, so something completely different. A few weeks ago, I saw a post doing the rounds about 11 Brilliant Female Authors You’ve Never Heard Of, and naturally I was interested. I agreed the authors were brilliant, but I didn’t think they were all that obscure. And of course that got me thinking about the sort of list I might put together on similar lines… The following authors are, I think, less well-known than those on the original list, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have heard of some of them, or indeed read them. Mostly these things depend on geography and how keen you are on female authors!

 

Maryse Condé

I titubaBorn in Guadeloupe in 1937, Condé’s native language is French and that’s what she writes in, but most of her career has been spent in America in academia. Her novels are deeply concerned with gender, race and culture and often they are historical, like my favourite, I, Tituba; Black Witch of Salem. She had a particular interest in the African diaspora, especially in the Caribbean, and everything she writes has a sharp political edge. But saying these things doesn’t really connect with the heart of her writing, which is just so vivid and vibrant. Tituba, for instance, is about a young slave girl who escapes her life of hardship to come to America where she gets mixed up in the Salem witch trials because she is black and her cultural beliefs as well as her medical knowledge, are different to the norm. It’s completely engrossing, but it captures the reader’s mind as well as heart.

 

Madeleine St John

The Essence of the ThingMadeleine St John is an Australian writer who’s been shortlisted for the Booker before (in 1997 for The Essence of the Thing) so she ought to be better known than she is. She seems to have this ability to slide off the radar, despite the wonderfully funny, accessible, sparklingly clever novels she writes. She’s got a most intriguing writing history, having spent eight years trying to write a biography of the spirit medium, Helena Blavatsky, and eventually destroying the manuscript in frustration. She finally turned to writing novels in the early 1990s and was successful but found herself deeply uncomfortable with the publicity that brought, which turned her almost into a recluse. Alas, she is with us no more, having died in 2006, but she leaves behind four wonderful novels (though her will stipulates that none shall ever be translated): The Women in Black, A Pure, Clear Light, The Essence of the Thing, A Stairway to Paradise.

 

Anne Hébert

kamouraskaBorn in Quebec in 1916, Hébert had a terrifically successful career in Canada, winning The Governor General’s Award three times, but doesn’t seem to be particularly well known beyond her native borders. She was an equally brilliant poet and novelist though she had to self-publish a couple of her early works in order to break into the literary scene. In her personal life she lost two people she was close to – her cousin and her sister – in sudden and violent illness and this very much shaped her poetic imagination. My favourite of her novels is Kamouraska, set in the 19th century, in which the female protagonist conspires with her lover, a doctor, to kill her husband. It’s based on a true story which possibly adds to the kick it gives, but it’s the atmosphere of the novel I’ve never forgotten, a sort of intense fever dream that manages nevertheless to ask some tough questions about love and morality.

 

Magda Szabó

izasBalladSzabó was a Hungarian writer whose writing was suppressed during the Stalinist rule from 1949 to 1956. She began her career as a poet, her second book of poetry winning the Baumgarten prize which was taken away from her for political reasons on the day it was awarded. During the years that followed she turned to writing novels and from 1958 until her death in 2007 was a revered literary figure. Her novels are gradually coming back into print in English. The Door, the story of the relationship between a writer and her house cleaner, was shortlisted for a number of prizes and turned into a film. Just recently, Iza’s Ballad was translated into English and published, the touching story of an elderly widow attempting and failing to escape the well-meaning but claustrophobic love of her daughter. Her stories are simple, but the depth of characterisation, the psychological insight and the quality of the writing are amazing.

 

Nina Bawden

the birds on the treesNina Bawden is better known as a children’s writer – Carrie’s War or The Peppermint Pig, anyone? – but she also wrote elegant, austere and psychologically piercing novels, too. Circles of Deceit was shortlisted for the Booker in 1987, and in 2010 The Birds on the Trees made the shortlist for the Lost Man Booker Prize. She had a life that seems marred by tragedy, losing a son to suicide, a daughter who died six months before Nina Bawden died herself, and a second husband killed in a train crash in which she was also badly injured. Yet over her lifetime she wrote 55 books. She’s a writer I would rate as highly as Penelope Mortimer or Elaine Dundy yet she seems to be sliding into obscurity at the moment. Time for an enterprising publisher to bring her work back into print.

 

 

Marie NDiaye

ladivineGiven that NDiaye has  been longlisted for this years International Man Booker with her novel Ladivine, I imagine that her name is much better known than it was a few months or so ago. If you live in France, there’s no doubt you’ll have heard of her. NDiaye is a prodigy, publishing her first novel at the age of 17 and winning the Prix Femina in 2001 for Rosie Carpe and the Prix Goncourt in 2009 for Three Strong Women. Her father is Senegalese (and he returned there when she was a baby, leaving her to be brought up by her mother) and one of her concerns is the situation of immigrants in metropolitan Paris, though she writes essentially about identity in the broadest sense. In her most recent novel, the female protagonist’s problems all arise because she can’t bear to admit that her mother was a poor, black housekeeper, and instead claims she is an orphan. My favourite of her novels is Rosie Carpe, though it won’t be to everyone’s taste. NDiaye had a strong interest in a delicate kind of magical realism (not a bit like the Latin American version – you’d have to read her to see why) and I find her novels completely entrancing.

 

Janice Galloway

this is not about meScottish writer, Janice Galloway, is – or at least was in her first three novels – what you might call an experimental or innovative writer. This gives some authors a bad name, like they might be pretentious. But Galloway’s down-to-earth female characters are anything but that. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, is a funny and terrifying account of a descent into mental illness, and that doesn’t sound too appealing either. But if you like Ali Smith, and you get that sharp-edged, black-humoured, rigorous and yet musical Scottish style, you’ll love her. Galloway’s recent volumes of memoir, This Is Not About Me and All  Made Up are excellent places for cautious readers to begin, and I urge you to try her because she has a wonderful voice.

 

Paula Fox

desperate charactersPaula Fox has reached the grand age of 92, which is long enough on the earth to have a great career, get forgotten and then be revived again. She was a highly successful children’s author, but I know her from her novel, Desperate Characters and her memoir, Borrowed Finery. Fox was abandoned at birth by her mother and put in a foundling home. Rescued by her grandmother who couldn’t look after her, she was placed in a series of households, the first belonging to a kindly Reverend who gave her a decent start in life. She worked as a teacher and a mentor for troubled youngsters, so no wonder she went on to write children’s literature, though she was in her 40s before she began to write seriously.  She was also writing novels with mixed success; these were all critically acclaimed but sold poorly. Goodness only knows why, for she’s an amazing writer. In 2011 she was placed in the New York State Writers’ Hall of Fame, and thanks to being championed by Jonathan Franzen, some of her work is now being reissued.

 

Willa Cather

DeathComesNow if you live in America, Willa Cather is going to be a very familiar name to you. However, I don’t think her works have ever become truly widely known outside of the States. And this is madness, because Cather is completely brilliant, probably my favourite prose stylist of all (okay, maybe tied with Colette). She is best known for her ‘prairie novels’, O Pioneers! and My Antonia, but I much prefer the run of novels that followed: Death Comes for the Archbishop, My Mortal Enemy, The Professor’s House, A Lost Lady. Cather really hit her stride in mid-career, and may have continued writing brilliantly right up to her death if critical opinion hadn’t turned against her, something that upset her deeply. Critics have a lot to answer for, in fact, as her work was taken up again by the feminists after her death (Cather was known for cross-dressing and having only significant female friends) and sort of mutilated once again, stuck under yet another label that narrowed her literary accomplishment. If you haven’t ever read her, pick up her novels. She is outstanding.

 

Jane Gardam

crusoe's daughterAnother name that will be very familiar to some, Gardam is a British writer whose recent trilogy of novels, Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends have definitely had some critical and commercial recognition. But Gardam has been writing for donkey’s years, and the novels from the early part of her career are every bit as wonderful and worth your time. I remember reading Bilgewater in my early 20s when it was one of the first coming-of-age novels I’d come across and being hugely impressed by it. She began writing in her 40s when her children had grown up enough for her to have time to herself, and from that moment on she was highly prolific. She is the only writer to have won the Whitbread Prize for best novel twice – for The Hollow Land in 1981 and Queen of the Tambourine in 1991. She was shortlisted for the Booker in 1978 for God on the Rocks. And yet despite the critical acclaim, I don’t think she is as well-known as she deserves to be. It’s like her zenith has passed, but that would be premature; start with Old Filth or Crusoe’s Daughter if you’ve never read her before.

 

And feel free to mention any other brilliant women writers who you think should be better known!

 

 

 

While I’ve Been Away…

‘Don’t you think that forty-eight is a good age,’ Mr Litlove began conversationally, ‘to start a jewellery collection?’

We were in town shortly before his birthday and we both knew my reason to be there was to shop for that event. Mr Litlove has always loved a fair bit of hoopla around his birthday. In previous years my wall calendar has been defaced with messages over the start of February that read ‘take out bank loan to buy Mr Litlove’s presents!’ and then later in the month, ‘do you have enough presents yet?’ and ‘don’t forget the cake!’ This mention of jewellery was a nonsense though, from a man who’d needed much persuasion to wear a wedding ring. Still, I was happy to play the game.

‘Shall I get you a big chunky gold necklace?’ I asked. ‘Or maybe a bracelet?’

‘These could be my Mr T. years!’ he declared. ‘I could be the white Mr T. I could wear a lot of gold, get myself a mohawk…’ he sighed happily. ‘The things you can do when you don’t have a job.’

‘But you do still have a wife,’ I pointed out. ‘At the moment.’

Mr Litlove thought that this was a consideration, when it came to jewellery and mohawks.

Oh my dear readers, it has been a while since I’ve posted here, but as you can see, not much has changed in the meantime. We are as foolish as ever. I have had every test known to the human eyeballs and mine are perfectly healthy, which is excellent news. I think gradually they are recovering from what has felt like weeks of eye strain. I’ve been prescribed reading glasses, which I’m really hoping will work a little miracle. Even if, well, reading glasses! And blue-tinted ones at that, to make it easy to look at the computer screen. But if it means I can read again, then so be it.

In the meantime, thank goodness for audio books. I’d just cancelled my Audible subscription when this happened, as I had a whole bunch of books on my ipod that I hadn’t listened to. There had been a sale, and I’d stocked up on three Agatha Christies, which were perfect convalescent material. I also loved Back When We Were Grown-Ups by Anne Tyler, Enigma by Robert Harris and Hot Water by P. G. Wodehouse (glorious foolishness). After that, though, I stalled in The Great Gatsby and The House of Mirth. Who knew that those beautiful, elegant sentences of Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton could end up sounding cumbersome when read aloud? And beyond those books, lay the mammoth forty hours of Can You Forgive Her? and the even more whopping fifty hours of The Count of Monte Cristo. Both of which I had bought in sales (the Count a mere £2.50). I may have been overly concerned about value for money.

Anyway, I happened to be in the bath when there was a knock on the front door and, a little while afterwards, the sound of something being pushed through the cat flap in the back door. I thought it was just the post, as my postman has devised this method of delivering books when I’m out. However, when I got downstairs, I found a big pile of books on CD – The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Simon Mawer, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, Deaf Sentence by David Lodge…. eight novels altogether. I was in awe. Who had pushed these goodies into my figurative lap? I wondered if it could possibly be the postman. He’s a bit of a local hero, having made the paper over Christmas for rescuing a woman’s cat after it was involved in a hit and run. And I see a fair bit of him because… well, for the reason you probably all know your postman quite well too! He’d been very sweet and sympathetic about my incapacitated state and I imagined it might be the sort of thing he’d do. But magnificent though my postman is, I somehow couldn’t imagine him knowing who Barbara Kingsolver was, and that I’d like her novels. Then when I checked my emails later in the day, there was one from my lovely friend, Rosy Thornton, who hadn’t been able to bear the thought of me unable to read and so had lent me her collection. What a darling! Since then I’ve been alternating The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (very good indeed) with the last of my own audio books, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (also excellent).

Mr Litlove is getting on well with his furniture making. I went for a haircut and procured him another commission – a coffee table for the hairdressing salon. He did have one tragic accident, though, when he dropped his smart phone and the glass cracked on the garage floor. This also happened on the same day that he popped the bag in his vacuum press – it was just one of those days. Although now I think about it, today he put his foot through the knee of his new birthday overalls. It’s no wonder I have nightmares about health and safety. Fortunately, the overalls were very cheap so whilst we hope my mother can perform a miracle with her needle, I could always buy him a new pair.  (They were so cheap that when we were looking online I offered to buy him the matching underwear to go with them, but he declined.)

If you get a chance, do let me know how you are in the comments. I absolutely loved the comments on the post about the menopause. Really, you are the funniest, cleverest and kindest readers in the blogosphere. But I’ve been away for a while.

 

Recovery

A week on from our various disasters and Mr Litlove is pretty much healed. Now the only actions that bother his shoulder occur in front of the computer, when too much mouse-work can make his arm sore. It was a revelation, watching his recovery process, however. He simply stopped, until the aches and pains from his trapped nerve had gone away, and then he gradually started moving again, easy household tasks to begin with – January’s been a washout work-wise but we’ve done a lot of de-cluttering – and then starting to exercise and return to his workshop. I am forced to realise I have never been that patient and accepting of my lot in my life. As for me, the optician was delighted with how much my eye had improved, and I don’t need to go back unless it flares up again. But ever since, I’ve had gritty, uncomfortable eyes, made worse by reading and looking at the computer screen. I’m typing quite fast here, hoping I can get through a post before the discomfort kicks in. I should be more like Mr Litlove, I suppose, content to stop until the problem has gone away, but I am not like him, alas.

the outrunBut the topic of recovery has been in my mind since reading Amy Liptrot’s memoir of alcohol addiction and tentative recovery, The Outrun. This is an exquisitely written first book that marries degradation and disgrace in London with a growing love of nature and its healing powers in Orkney. Liptrot comes from Orkney originally, where her mismatched parents went in search of a good life. Her father is a manic-depressive, her mother, since their divorce, a born-again Christian. Liptrot wanted nothing more than to escape the islands when she grew up, and moved south to London to pursue a university degree and a career in journalism. But the demon drink got a hold of her too. A self-confessed sensation-seeker, she fell so easily into the ready excesses of life in an isolating city, and her unflinching memoir gives a clear account of the humiliations consequent to too much booze. She loses the man she loves – which gives her even more reason to drink – gets chucked out of many a house share, is nearly raped by a stranger one drunken night, can’t hold down a job. London can do that to you, I think; the combination of opportunity and loneliness is a difficult one to negotiate.

If London can be a place of downfall, then the obvious thing to do is find a place of healing. After a course in rehab, Amy heads home, not for any better reason that she has nothing much else to do, and staying sober is hard, treacherous work. The cravings of the alcoholic never really go away, no matter how much damage is done to the self, and so the fight for sobriety is one that has to be fought daily. But the Orkney islands turn out to offer more solace than she at first imagines. She finds a job with the RSPB tracking the remaining corncrakes on Orkney – a tiny brown bird with a distinctive call that has almost become extinct due to modern farming practices. And this proves such an improving thing to do that she takes on a tiny cottage in the small island of Papa Westray for the winter. One thing about the Orkney islands: they are very windy. On one of her walks, Amy describes how: ‘I ascend the hill in a crouched position, probably watched by amused islanders in the houses below.  I lie forward into the wind, like a mattress of air: it takes my breath and exhausts me –  a full-body experience. It’s loud enough to hide in.’ She describes another windy day – one noted in Orkney history no less, when ‘tethered cows had been flying in the air like kites.’ It seems clear that this sort of wildness is congruent with Liptrot’s inner wildness, one that could not be appeased by alcohol, although it looked like it would suit the task, but can be calmed in a weather system that’s powerfully bigger than she is.

I wonder how often it is that we do not want what we think we want. I wonder how often we live in circumstances that do us damage in the long-run because we can’t think beyond our immediate solutions, and lack the courage or the motivation to try something else. I remember reading somewhere that humans tend to shy away from change because it’s so hard to do, and unless we’re really up against it, we’ll bumble on as we are.

The book has two rhythms. The first half is a rapid, forceful descent into the darkness of alcoholism, and it’s immensely gripping. The second part is a much more languid and dilatory affair, with chapters exploring different aspects of life on Orkney and Amy’s slow rehabilitation. It makes for a slightly uneven book, but I actually appreciated the honesty of this. Recovery does not happen in linear fashion. It goes back and forth, picks up new hitches and secondary issues, returns us time and again to things we thought we were done with. ‘I still have nervousness around other people,’ Liptrot writes. ‘When you’ve spent so long messing up, covering up and apologising, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve done something wrong and default to the secretive and even sneaky behaviour that addiction involves. I often have a flickering sense that I must have said or done something terribly misjudged.’ Although Amy Liptrot is, in theory, not my kind of person at all – an extrovert, a sensation-seeker, a louder-than-life person, I found myself relating effortlessly to her situation, her determination to recover and her courageous honesty. Only the truth will save us, they say, and that’s about right. This is a very truthful book, searingly so, and all the better for it. I wanted to tell her at the end: stay sober, Amy, so you can keep writing.

And in the hope of furthering my own recovery, I’ve signed up for an online course with the Optimum Health Clinic, the specialist chronic fatigue centre. ‘Conscious Transformation’ it’s called, and is about finding the right mindset to get through the illness and out the other side. I know what a long, slow process recovery can be, and I do hope that this will make a difference. It starts in February and I don’t doubt I’ll tell you about it as I go through the tasks.

 

A P.S. – I love your comments and appreciate them so much, but staying away from computer screens has put me behind in replying. I will catch up as soon as possible.