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.

 

The Penguin Rocker and More Books

I have been very remiss in not showing you a photo of the chair Mr Litlove made me for my birthday. Yes, I know what you are thinking: how many more chairs can be deemed anniversary gifts before there is no more room in the house? A very good question, my friends. The answer: not many.

But in the meantime, I’ve always wanted a rocking chair and now I have one. We’ve been unofficially calling it the penguin chair because it just has that flippered look about it. One misconception I’ve been harboring about rocking chairs is that they have their own momentum. Well, they sort of do, but the experience is akin to being on a garden swing. You need to put a little kinetic energy in to keep going. I do think it’s the perfect chair for listening to audio books. I can’t knit as an accompanying activity, so that option is out of the question, but I can steeple my fingers and nod wisely with the best of them.

Now, some more books and let’s plunge into controversy with Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Cather is one of my all-time favourite authors, and at the start of the year I had a re-reading session with her novels. I read The Professor’s House and A Lost Lady again, which are both flawless masterpieces to me. Sapphira is Cather’s last novel, published in 1940 when she was tired and bitter, nostalgic for the past, horrified by the war in Europe and suffering a chronic wrist injury that prevented her from writing in comfort. Maybe for these reasons it’s a darker novel than many, although Cather never loses touch with the beauty of nature and the innate potential for compassion in her characters. It’s set in Virginia way back in the 1850s and concerns the household of local mill owner, Henry Colbert. His aristocratic wife came to him at their marriage with black slaves from her homestead, and although Henry is deeply uncomfortable with slavery, he understands that this is how his wife manages domesticity. He can’t upset the apple cart to the extent of turning the slaves free (in 1850, he’s not sure where they’d go), and so his intention is to treat his people with as much generosity and kindness he can muster, and ensure their lives with him are good.

Sapphira’s relationship to her slaves is quite different. Although we understand that she has been, across her lifetime, a good and generous mistress, just lately a few distressing problems have soured her outlook. First of all, Sapphira has recently become crippled with dropsy – extremely swollen ankles – and must deal with both physical restriction and pain. As a lady she bears it stoically, but it’s not helping her temper. Added to the humiliation of bodily woes, she suspects that her pretty black maid, Nancy, is having an affair with her husband. Now, no such thing is taking place. Henry admires Nancy and he has respect for the attention she brings to her chores. There may be something a tad guilty lurking in the back of his mind, which is why he can’t bring himself to act when he realises a serious problem exists between the women. But Henry isn’t much of an instigator at the best of times. So, lack of communication between husband and wife is consolidated by Sapphira’s jealous mind with suspicion, and the indignity and embarrassment of encroaching old age. Not content with chiding and scolding Nancy and smacking her with a hairbrush at the least opportunity, Sapphira decides to act out in a far worse way.

She contacts the family rake and invites him for a lovely long stay. Naturally, said rake finds Nancy extremely alluring and, since she’s a slave and readily available to him, he’s determined to satisfy his lust. Poor Nancy is in a terrible position. If she becomes pregnant she’ll be thrown out, but how can she avoid the unwelcome attentions of an arrogant, entitled white master? Well, as it turns out, Sapphira and Henry have a daughter, Rachel Blake, and Rachel can’t abide slavery:

It was the owning that was wrong, the relation itself, no matter how convenient or agreeable it might be for master or servant. She had always known it was wrong. It was the thing that made her unhappy at home and came between her and her mother. How she hated her mother’s voice in sarcastic reprimand to the servants! And she hated it in contemptuous indulgence.

Rachel sets out to help Nancy, only it will come at a heavy price for her.

Now here we run into the controversy. This seems to me to be a pretty enlightened tale for 1940, and it would be a humanitarian miracle for 1850. But the criticism that I’ve read of it says it’s still not good enough for the new millennium. The thrust of the story is entirely about the awful consequences that can occur when some people believe they have absolute power over others. But in the general areas of the narrative, there’s enough to offend the sensibilities of some. The term ‘darkies’ is used occasionally. When the slaves are all finally freed, one goes to the bad, which I’ve seen stated as cause for concern. There’s a general sense of the primitive in the descriptions of the servants. I suppose if you have delicate sensitivities in this area, then maybe it’s better to read something else. But it seems to me that if you open a newspaper,  there are far worse examples of racism to be had in the world today than in this book. If you’re okay with historical fiction and its vicissitudes, then it’s worth reading. Myself, I’d rather not miss out on the message that even good people can be corrupted by a fatal combination of misguided entitlement and their own insecurities. In fact, it seems to me vital that such a message be heard right here and now. It seems essential to me to read books like this, flaws and all, to see how much has changed, and how little.

Well I have wittered on so long that once again I’ve used up my thousand words with many more books still to be discussed. Hope to come visiting you all soon, too, and see what you’ve been reading.

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.

 

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.