From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

Although the title of this post is definitely a Mr-Litlove-esque one, I am sorry to say that Mr Litlove has not done anything comical for several weeks and so this is about books.

I’m wondering why my reading experiences have been so mixed lately – is it me or is it the books? I do think that audio books test a narrative severely and that something like The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild, a 17-hour listening slog, might be a much more entertaining book if you could zip through it on the page. As it was, I felt that this novel probably had a very good idea lurking deep within it, but the narrative flourishes including scheming Nazis, lost masterpieces, alcoholic mothers, desperate heads of auction houses, many, many international multi-millionaires, overnight success, murders and a truly ludicrous ending diluted that idea beyond redemption. After a while I re-named it: The Improbability of the Plot.

The story wasn’t helped by having a heroine who simply refused to become sympathetic despite having the entire catalogue of woes thrown at her. Or rather, it was because every fashionable device for creating sympathy was deployed that she drifts beyond the reader’s reach into boring incoherence. Annie is recently divorced and poor, living alone and lonely in London where she is hoping to earn a living as a cook. When the story begins she buys a dusty painting from a junk shop for a fledgling boyfriend – it’s his birthday – but alas the cad stands her up and Annie spends the night sobbing, unaware that she’s purchased a sleeper. The painting knows. The painting gets its own voice and its own chapters to tell us all about its fête galante fabulousness, daahling (I didn’t mind these). Then Annie’s alcoholic mother, Evie, comes stumbling back into her life and she thinks the picture might be worth something. Off they trot to the Wallace Collection where guide and amateur artist, Jessie, falls instantly in mad crazy love with Annie (it’s properly mad – she spends most of the book discouraging him after an opening in which she is longing for love, so who knows why either of them sticks with it). Jessie does all he can to get the picture authenticated for her, while Annie doubts and loses patience and can’t be bothered and oh all sorts of things that fail to whip up any interest in the reader.

Now I’m heading into big spoilers in this next paragraph so be warned. So, Annie goes to work for high class art dealers, Memling Winkleman (a 90-year-old in unbelievably good nick) and his put-upon daughter, Rebecca. The portrait of Rebecca is every bit as incoherent as that of Annie. Rebecca loves her father and yet is ground down by her father. When she discovers that he is not the sole Jewish survivor of a German family lost to the Holocaust, but a dirty Nazi who has funded their business with a huge stash of stolen art, she is so horrified by his lack of ethics, and so upset that the good name of the family will be tarnished, that she instantly puts out a hit on the art critic who has found Memling out, and then frames Annie for theft and murder. Wait, what?

There are good bits in this avalanche of narrative, and I was pretty much going along and enjoying it until about the halfway mark, when I began to lose the will to live. I think the art world is fascinating and I’d love to learn more about it, but this book is just too silly for words.

Moving swiftly on, then, to Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff. Now as books go, this one is a tricky little Munchkin.  If you hold it up to the light one way you get a very witty and amusing comedy about a man with hilariously clever dogs. If you hold it up to the light the other way you get a farcical take on depression and relationships and working in New York that is too crazy and all over the place for the big topics it’s wielding. I think to Rosoff’s credit, she is trying to pull off the very difficult trick of writing a book that is serious and funny at the same time. But again, the monster that is incoherence gets too good a grip on the middle section.

Jonathan Trefoil is a nice man but a lost one. He doesn’t understand what’s going on in his life, and he doesn’t have much idea about what he wants, but in an ideal world he’d like to be a grown-up doing grown-up things, like earning a living and marrying a woman he loves. However, his job is in an ad agency that is so superficial and absurd that it’s destroying him. And his girlfriend, Julie, is the organising sort who’s agreed to a wedding because the bridal magazine she works for is putting together a special edition and paying for it to feature. To add to his life woes, Jonathan is living in a dodgy rental and dog-sitting for his brother who’s working in Dubai. Although the previous sentences might lead you to think this is a book about Jonathan, it’s really about the dogs, who upstage every single character in every single scene they appear in. Really, the dogs are completely hilarious and adorable. In fact, the dogs could pretty much do without half the plot and half the characters, too, and just sort of improvise across the narrative. And I say this as someone who isn’t even into dogs.

So, Jonathan’s inability to get a grip on his life is entirely at odds with the iron grasp that fate seems to have got on him. The result is a severe breakdown in which he loses his ability to speak in anything but nonsense language. Ha, ha… no, not quite funny enough, somehow. Believe me, I was totally convinced by Jonathan’s character. I think he represents a fair slice of the male population. But you do long to give him a kick up the backside, and when it’s perfectly plausible that two canines have more instinct and drive than the human who feeds them, something is out of balance in your narrative. It makes Jonathan’s happy ending the implausible bit, because you don’t feel he’s had much agency in it.

What really redeems this book, however, is the brilliance of the writing. Meg Rosoff is SO funny. There’s scarcely an un-witty line in the whole thing. It’s like a masterclass in how to be funny in print, and how to use the absurd (so mishandled in most novels, cf The Improbability of Love) to its full effect. It’s sort of a shame that all this wonderful inventiveness is used in the cause of an ordinary rom-com.

Okay, I have, as ever, bypassed my 1,000 word limit without reaching my final book. But I’m not sure what to say about Elizabeth Strout’s novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, other than it’s wonderful. Spare, simple, direct storytelling that uses silence and the unsaid to devastating effect. Lucy is in hospital suffering from a strange, inexplicable infection after a routine appendicitis operation. While she is there her mother comes to visit her for five days. This is extraordinary – Lucy’s family is dysfunctional, poor, violent, full of shame and unresolved bitterness. When Lucy married she left and has not seen a single member for years. But now her mother has come and as she sits, sleepless, by the side of Lucy’s bed, they chat in an inconsequential way that thrills the once-neglected Lucy to the core. Her mother tells her stories of people from their home town but won’t be drawn into anything more intimate, anything more telling. But Lucy’s reaction, the patchwork of memories she gives the reader, her exquisitely rendered emotions at her mother’s presence, indicates the wealth of drama that is being played out under this most unassuming facade. I loved it.

 

Top Ten Books of 2016

I wasn’t going to do one of these lists – for the first time in ten years of blogging – because I have read so little this year. But then it occurred to me that whilst I may not have read many physical books, I’ve listened to a large number. And looking back over the year, I see that Shiny ensured that when I was reading, I still read as much as I possibly could. And I adore Best-Of lists; it was reading Annabel’s (which inspired me to order three actual books in the spirit of cautious optimism motivating my idea of reading in 2017) that decided me finally to do one.

So, in no particular order, the best books of the year have been:

commonwealthCommonwealth by Ann Patchett

Mr Litlove read this one to me and we both enjoyed it tremendously. The story of a dysfunctional family, grafted in awkward ways due to divorce and remarriage, is viscous with dread in its early stages, but strong on reconciliation and renewal by its conclusion. Patchett’s wonderful writing brings every scene dazzlingly alive.

Black Water by Louise Doughty

The unglamourous side of espionage and its complex ethical issues are brought to the fore in this stunner of a novel. John Harper has ‘looked after the interests’ of multinational companies, doing the legwork that not many people ever get to know about, mostly in Indonesia (where he was born to mixed race parents) in two period of turmoil: the anti-Communist purges in 1965 and the riots of 1998. What would you do if your survival was at stake, the novel asks? And then how would you live with yourself afterwards? Exquisite writing gives this tale terrific emotional and moral heft.

The Good Guy by Susan Bealethe-good-guy

Suburban America in the 1960s is the setting for this story of adultery and its consequences. You might think it’s a tale that’s been often told, but the Hopper-ish scene setting and the delicate characterisation of all the parties involved makes this a standout.

Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano

Critics mistook this for a novel when it was first published, but it’s actually a genuine investigation undertaken by Modiano into a petit annonce in a 1941 newspaper seeking the whereabouts of teenage runaway, Dora Bruder. Modiano found out that she had run into the arms of the Gestapo and had been deported with her father to Auschwitz in 1942. But what else could he discover about her? Could he piece her biography together? Who was she? What follows is one of the most moving and insightful accounts of an imaginative attempt to enter the life of another that you’ll ever read.

conclaveConclave by Robert Harris

Mr Litlove and I have only just finished listening to this one on audio book, but it’s kept us enthralled over the festive period. The story, set in the near future, begins with the death of the current pope and the meeting of cardinals in the Vatican to elect his successor. It’s told from the perspective of Jacapo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals and the man whose unhappy task it is to preside over the conclave. Full of details you never knew about the process of papal election, yet dominated by a powerful, gripping storyline as secrets and scandals rise inexorably to the surface, this is one fun and fulfilling read.

Americanah by Chimamande Ngozi Adiochie

I listened to this way back at the start of the year and absolutely loved it. It’s fundamentally a love story, concerning teenage sweethearts in Nigeria who are separated by their life choices. Ifemelu has the opportunity to study in America and she takes it with both hands, believing it is her route to a better future. Obinze, who had hoped to follow her, is stymied in his choices and finally ends up in the UK. The story is a long, slow appreciation of their different routes, taken as the two make it back to one another, though of course both are now in separate relationships and carrying a great deal of baggage. Essentially, it’s a book about race, and about being a black person in a white world. It’s brilliant on race. Really excellent. And I have to give a special shout-out to the narrator of the audio book, Adjoa Andoh, whose range of Nigerian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, American and British accents had to be heard to be believed. I could have listened to her all day (and sometimes did).

The Ava Lee novels by Ian Hamiltondeadly-touch-of-tigress

My sister-in-law got me started on this crime fiction series featuring Ava Lee, a forensic accountant. Yup, a petite, gay, Chinese-Canadian woman who can do maths and kick butt – what’s not to like? Ava goes on the track of funds (enormous funds) that are missing or have been criminally appropriated, and she gets her clients their money back. You get to find out what a lot of airports across the world are like, as Ava has to do a lot of travelling to follow the money trail, and you learn interesting stuff about Chinese martial arts, financial accounting and top-end hotels, too.  I’ve been wonderfully entertained by them.

The Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child

If I’m honestly doing my best of the year, then I have to include another shout-out to Reacher. Having listened to a LOT of audiobooks this year, I’m here to tell you that being read out loud is a stringent test for any work of fiction. You get to hear every single word chosen by the author, and you get to hear every single sentence, all read at a constant, steady pace. Not many styles, plots or characters can survive it. However, Lee Child’s novels really do work under these severe conditions. I can’t speak for the last five or six he’s published, as they are showing all the signs of series fatigue and just don’t match up to the early ones. I listened to Killing Floor and The Hard Way, and both were excellent – and brilliantly read by their narrators, too.

a-spool-of-blue-threadA Spool of Blue Thread and Back When We Were Grown-Ups by Anne Tyler

The other author who works magnificently on audio is Anne Tyler. I’ve long loved her work and read most of what she’s written (you remember they re-issued her early novels? I haven’t read all of those – she hit her stride with Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant and I’ve read them all since then). The two I mention above were real highlights of the listening year. Her characters are so real and her dialogue so wonderful and – the later you go in her back list – she is so funny and amusing that her novels were just instant cheerfulness for me.

The End of the Novel of Love by Vivian Gornick

This is an unusually fiction-heavy list this  year, and I should add honorable mentions here for Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Hicks and Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marcal. But I have to award the prize to Vivian Gornick for her set of splendid interconnected literary essays on the way love in novels has changed since the 19th century. She writes about Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Christina Stead, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley and many others. But it doesn’t matter who she writes about, the point is the clarity, the insight and the lack of pretension she brings to whichever author falls into her sphere. Mr Litlove read these to me, and he – an engineer by training – enjoyed them as much as I did. Now that’s what I call literary criticism.

 

New Shiny and News

Our Christmas Edition of Shiny New Books is live today! Do go on over and decide what you want to unwrap under the tree this year…

snb xmas

The BookBuzz section is rather a special one for me, as it’s my last. It’s been an amazing three years in which I’ve had the chance to interview some lovely writers and experience a slice of the joy that other reviewers have had for years, receiving free books through the post! And it’s been a real delight to work with Annabel, Harriet and Simon. We’ve been such a great team and I will miss our group chats terribly. But it’s time for a big old revamp, something that has to happen regularly on the fickle internet if sites want to keep up their audience and stay tempting. Annabel and Harriet will make an announcement in the New Year about the New Look Shiny, while Simon and I are bowing out as editors. Though we will keep a hand in as Editors At Large, a title I’m enjoying immensely as it makes us sound wild and dangerous, which is not something that happens to me every day.

Undoubtedly my decision has been motivated to a great extent by the fate of my eyes. I went to see an eye specialist back in September and finally understood what was happening. I have recurrent marginal keratitis, and when I looked it up on the internet, the advice was to go to the vets – it’s more common in dogs than humans, apparently. Honestly, you’d think one of these days I’d suffer from something nice and noble. Basically, the rims of my corneas keep getting inflamed and this has been caused by two perfectly ordinary conditions – dry eyes and blepharitis – that have grown out of control. It’s not serious, thankfully, although my corneas have taken a fair bit of scarring, but it is extremely tenacious. I’m on four months of anti-inflammatories, and may require more.

It would have been nice if an optician, on one of my four visits to them over the course of this year, had mentioned either dry eyes or blepharitis. It might not have got so bad.

Anyhow, I think they are gradually improving, although it is slow. In a normal day now I can read for up to an hour, look at the computer for about 90 mins and watch an hour or so of telly without annoying them too much. But it’s been the kiss of death to blogging. I am still not comfortable with posting and then not visiting you all, and sometimes not managing to answer comments. It feels all wrong somehow. And I’m not reading enough books to make a decent show of reviewing. It is so funny how things happen. After a year of not reading, I wonder if I will ever go back to the lovely long hours I used to spend at it. I have listened to a LOT of audio books, and Mr Litlove has been very good about reading out loud to me. There are two things you should know about this: 1) he really enjoys it and 2) he is dyslexic. So it can be an intriguing and hallucinatory experience, listening to the myriad ways language can shift and change under his gaze. For instance, we are currently reading a book about the occasion when the painting, The Scream by Edvard Munch, was stolen from a Norwegian art gallery. ‘And the next chapter,’ says Mr Litlove, ‘is called: “Munich”.’ Then he pauses. ‘Oh, hang on a minute. The next chapter is called: “Munch”.’ Honestly, it’s delightful and an oddly creative experience, but I wonder how much of a book changes when he reads it to me.

You’ll all be glad to know that he is doing well, and making lots of furniture. He started a new upholstery class this autumn, a much better one than the first, which is full of lovely ladies and he is the only man. He loves it, and they love him. And nowadays he comes out with things like: ‘Please can we go and visit the haberdashery above the bike shop in Ely?’ Which is not a sentence I ever thought would pass my husband’s lips. Life is full of surprises.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine

stranger-than-we-can-imagineWhat a difference a century makes! Back in 1900 the streets held mostly horse-drawn carriages, you could die from a simple infection and if you wanted to communicate with a person who was not in the same room, you had to sit down and write a letter. On paper, and with a pen. A glimpse of a woman’s ankle was daring, and duty and respectability were the great social forces of the day. It seems almost impossible that a hundred short years should take us to the 21st century, with its stem cell science, hand-held wireless nanotechnology, global capitalism and politicians who act more like shouty, grudge-bearing teenagers with every day that passes.

How on earth to trace the story of 1900 to 2000? Well, this is the immense task that John Higgs sets himself, and he not only does it with searing intelligence and insight, but with clarity, accessibility and some very entertaining metaphors. If this strikes you as in any way a heavy or difficult book, or one that doesn’t have anything to say that you might be curious to hear, think again. This brilliant account of the modern history of ideas and ideology is an engaging and amusing tale illustrated by a cast of glorious eccentrics and their crazy but influential obsessions.

Perhaps the most important concept in the book is drawn from ancient history. The omphalos ‘is the centre of the world, or, more accurately, what was culturally thought to be the centre of the world.’ In 1900, Higgs tells us, the omphalos that mattered was the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, South London. This was the point on the earth from which time and space were measured, and it was supported ‘by four pillars: Monarchy, Church, Empire and Newton.’ Over the next decades, these great insitutions would crumble, fade in important and be superseded by new ideas. The first of which, in this account, is Einstein’s relativity. Einstein discovered that there was no absolute place of measurement in the universe – everything altered, depending on where you were standing, and what perspective you embodied. This realisation, which forever changed the face of science, becomes the catalyst in Higgs’ analysis for all kinds of other change across the twentieth century. No longer would the Emperor be the great omphalos for his people – instead we would witness the rise of individualism. The ultimate ideology of all that is relative, individualism refused all the hierarchies on which life had previously been organised. No more ‘knowing one’s place in the great scheme of things. Now the fact that we really knew our place, and that it was on shifting sands, viewed from a unique subjective perspective, would come to dominate all subsequent thinking.

Higgs’ influential thinkers on individualism are Aleister Crowley and Ayn Rand. Crowley – whose extraordinary life provides many eye-popping anecdotes – was the author of the injunction to ‘Do what thy will’, whilst Rand promoted ‘the virtue of selfishness’. For both of them ‘the solution to a clash of competing liberties was the use of force. When someone was stopping you from doing what you wanted, then the strongest will must prevail.’ Crowley had an amazing number of interested followers – the early pioneers of space travel were deeply into his writings – and of course Ayn Rand’s theories went on to inform modern financial policy. We all know how that went.

Higgs divides his material up into a series of chapters that each deal with a significant area of change – war, Modernism, the discovery of the id, the rise of the teenager, the influcent of nihilism, the spread of the network. Along this primrose path, he strews some brilliant insights, such as: ‘technology had made warfare psychologically too terrible for soldiers to bear’, and the recognition that postmoderism was at work in New Age thinking, with its pick n’ mix approach to spiritual doctrine: ‘to dismiss a spiritual movement on the rational grounds of factual inaccuracy is, in many ways, to miss the point. Religions and spirituality are maps of our emotional territory; not our intellect.’ One of my favorite points concerns modern day capitalism and the rise of big business. In America, corporate lawyers managed to argue for businesses to be classified as individuals, thus gaining them all the rights of the Fourteenth Amendment and encouraging unrestrained growth. However, since there was no one employee or founder in the company who could be held as responsible for its actions, companies became individuals with none of the restraints or responsibilities real people have. In other words, they were granted the legal right to act like psychopaths, and I think it’s fair to say they have done so.

Higgs is also extremely adept at finding helpful ways to explain his more complicated concepts. In the most demanding chapter on mathematical uncertainty and quantum physics, he offers the reader an eye-catching metaphor to think through the subatomic world:

Let us imagine a single unit of news, such as Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, being photographed fighting a kangaroo. Such an event is unpredictable, in that it is not possible to say in advance when it is going to occur. All we can say, and both supporters and detractors of Putin will agree on this point, is that at some point the President is going to punch a kangaroo. That’s just the sort of person he is.’

I absolutely loved this book, and my husband who read it alongside me, loved it too. The only time I stumbled was on the extremely rare occasions when I had read widely in an area Higgs tackles – for instance, Existentialism, which Higgs rightly cites as a response to nihilism. But to say Existentialism IS nihilistic is to miss the insistence of its authors on social and political engagement as essential to our lives, on the way meaning remains no matter that it can seem irrational, and on the responsibility we must all take to do something with our time on earth. However, to cut such a clean swathe through a century of complex and confusing theories it’s inevitable some details will get lost by the wayside, and I was more in awe of Higgs’ ability to explain things so clearly than I was bothered by a few intricacies of thought. Another criticism that came to my mind was that there were not many women represented in the book – but I think that ought to be a criticism of the century, which has been dominated by men and masculine structures of thought, despite second wave feminism. We ought to ponder the consequences of such a celebration of strength, force, individualism, science and technology, when we find ourselves so often suffering from the problems of recklessness, competitiveness and selfishness.

Although Higgs does end on a potentially positive note, with the idea that the twentieth century has been a big blip, a lacuna of compassion as we move from one way of relating in society (based on the omphalos of the Emperor) to another, the transparency-obsessed, interconnected network. It’s a clever idea, and a hopeful one, too. May he be right in this, as he is in so many other things. Stranger Than We Can Imagine ought to be required reading in schools, it’s that excellent and essential a guide to modern history.