Tag: dystopian

My Bibliotherapy Appointment at the School of Life

I’ve been interested in bibliotherapy for years, and I love The Novel Cure (see my review), the learned and playful advice book from Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, two of the bibliotherapists at Alain de Botton’s London School of Life. Earlier this month I had the tremendous opportunity to have a personalized bibliotherapy appointment with Ella Berthoud at the School of Life. She’d put out a call on Twitter for volunteers to come for a free session (usually £100) to be observed by a journalist from La Repubblica writing about bibliotherapy – the translation of The Novel Cure has sold remarkably well in Italy. The feature will be part of a special color supplement in February, and I look forward to seeing if my story makes the cut! That is, if I can decipher any of the Italian.

Now, you might not think I’m the kind of person who needs a bibliotherapy assessment since I already find 300+ books per year I want to read; I worried that too, and felt a little bit guilty, but in the end I couldn’t pass up the chance, and Ella was happy to have me.

I took my copy of The Novel Cure along for Ella to sign.

Before my appointment I’d been asked to complete a two-page questionnaire about my reading habits and likes/dislikes, along with what’s going on in my life in general (the ‘therapy’ aspect is real). Once we were set up in the basement therapy room with hot drinks, Ella asked me more about how I read. I’d told her my reading was about two-thirds print books and one-third e-books. Had I ever tried audiobooks or reading aloud, she asked? The answer to both of those is no, I’m afraid. There’s no obvious place for audiobooks in my life because I work from home. However, as I’d mentioned I haven’t been able to get through a Dickens novel in five years, Ella suggested I try listening to one – abridged, it can be more like eight hours long instead of 42, and you still get a terrific story. She also highly recommended New Yorker and Guardian podcasts based around short stories and discussion.

For reading aloud with my husband, Ella prescribed one short story per evening sitting – a way for me to get through short story collections, which I sometimes struggle to finish, and a different way to engage with books. We also talked about the value of rereading childhood favorites such as Watership Down and Little Women, which I haven’t gone back to since I was nine and 12, respectively. In this anniversary year, Little Women would be the ideal book to reread (and the new television adaptation is pretty good too, Ella thinks).

One other reading habit Ella is adamant about is keeping a physical reading journal in which you record the title of each book you read, where you read it, and about a paragraph of thoughts about it. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive response to every book; more like an aide-mémoire that you can get off the shelf in years to come to remind yourself of what you thought about a book. Specifically, Ella thinks writing down the location of your reading (e.g., on a train to Scotland) allows you to put yourself back in the moment. I tend to note where I bought a book, but not necessarily where I read it – for that, I would probably have to cross-reference my annual book list against a calendar. Since 2010 I’ve kept my book lists and responses in computer files, and I also keep full records via Goodreads, but I can see why having a physical journal would be a good back-up as well as a more pleasant representation of my reading. I’ll think about starting one.

Various books came up over the course of our conversation: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone [appearance in The Novel Cure: The Ten Best Novels to Cure the Xenophobic, but Ella brought it up because of the medical theme], Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume [cure: ageing, horror of], and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a nonfiction guide to thinking creatively about your life, chiefly through 20-minute automatic writing exercises every morning. We agreed that it’s impossible to dismiss a whole genre, even if I do find myself weary of certain trends, like dystopian fiction (I introduced Ella to Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favorite recent examples).

I came away with two instant prescriptions: Heligoland by Shena Mackay [cure: moving house], about a shell-shaped island house that used to be the headquarters of a cult. It’s a perfect short book, Ella tells me, and will help dose my feelings of rootlessness after moving more than 10 times in the last 10 years. She also prescribed Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry [cure: ageing parents] and an eventual reread of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. As we discussed various other issues, such as my uncertainty about having children, Ella said she could think of 20 or more books to recommend me. “That’s a good thing, right?!” I asked.

Before I left, I asked Ella if she would ever prescribe nonfiction. She said they have been known to do so, usually if it’s written in a literary style (e.g. Robert Macfarlane and Alain de Botton). We chatted about medical memoirs and reading with the seasons for a little while, and then I thanked her and headed on my way. I walked around the corner to Skoob Books but, alas, didn’t find any of the books Ella had mentioned during our session. On the way back to the Tube station, though, I stopped at Judd Books and bought several secondhand and remaindered goodies, including these two:

(Imagine my surprise when I spotted The Year of the Hare in The Novel Cure under midlife crisis! Age seemed to be the theme of the day.)

As soon as I got back from London I ordered secondhand copies of Heligoland, Jitterbug Perfume and The Artist’s Way, and borrowed Family Matters from the public library the next day. Within a few days four further book prescriptions arrived for me by e-mail. Ella did say that her job is made harder when her clients read a lot, so kudos to her for prescribing books I’d not read – with the one exception of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I love.

I’ve put in another order for Maggie and Me, the memoir by Damian Barr, plus (for reading aloud) Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman and the collected short stories of Saki. I’m also keen to find The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski, Ella’s final prescription, but as the Persephone Books reprint is pricey at the moment I may hold off and hope to chance upon a secondhand copy later in the year. Ella has been very generous with her recommendations, especially considering that I didn’t pay a penny. I certainly have plenty to be getting on with for now! I’ll report back later on in the year when I’ve had the chance to read some of these prescriptions.

The prescribed books I have gotten hold of so far.
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The Rest of the Books I Abandoned in 2017, and the Year’s Disappointments

My abandoned books posts are always perversely popular, garnering nearly twice as many views as many of my reviews. This seems to be because fellow readers are secretly (and a bit guiltily) looking for permission to give up on the books they’re not enjoying. I hereby grant you my blessing! If after 25 pages or so a book is not grabbing you – even if it’s a bestseller, or a book all the critics or bloggers are raving about – have no shame about putting it down. You can always change your mind and try it another time, but ultimately you are the arbiter of your own internal library, and only you can say whether a book is for you or not.

That said, here are all the rest of the books I’ve abandoned since May’s post (not mentioning again any that might have come up through my Library Checkout or monthly preview posts). I don’t write full reviews for DNFs, just a sentence or two to remind myself of why I gave up on a book. (In chronological order of my reading.)

 

Dear Mr M by Herman Koch: I didn’t even make it past the first few pages. I wasn’t at all engaged, and I couldn’t now tell you a single thing about the book.

 

Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo: I started this for a potential BookBrowse review and it felt derivative of every other African-set book I’ve ever read. It was difficult to see what made it original enough to be on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. (DNF @ 15%)

 

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor: I feel bad about this one because so many discerning readers admire it. I thought I knew what to expect – lovely writing, much of it descriptions of the natural world and the daily life of a small community – but I guess I hadn’t fully heeded the warning that nothing happens. You hear a lot about Hardyesque locals you can’t keep straight (because what do they matter?) but never anything about what happened to the missing girl. Couldn’t hold my interest, but I won’t rule out trying it again in the future. (DNF @ 15%)

 

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: I’d heard amazing things about this debut novel and was indeed impressed by the descriptive language and characterization. But if you know one thing about this book, it’s that it’s full of horrifically matter-of-fact scenes of sexual abuse. When I reached the first of these I couldn’t go on, even though I was supposed to review this for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Luckily my editor was very understanding. (DNF @ 6%)

 

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich: I’d heard a lot of pre-publication buzz about this book, which came out in January, and always meant to get around to it. The problem is likely down to expectations and a surfeit of information. Had I come to this knowing little to nothing about it, perhaps I would have been drawn into the subtle mystery. (DNF @ 7%)

 

The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet [trans. from the French by Sam Taylor]: HHhH was brilliant, but this one’s cleverness passed me by. I could probably sustain my interest in a playful mystery about linguistics and ‘the death of the author’ for the length of a short story, but not for nearly 400 pages. (DNF after 40 pages)

 

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: This starts out feeling like the simple story of Cedar meeting her biological Native American parents and coming to terms with her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. It takes a long time to start resembling the dystopian novel it’s supposed to be, and the signs that something is awry seem too little and come too late to produce even mild alarm. I’d try something else by Erdrich, but I didn’t find her take on this genre worthwhile.(DNF @ 32%)

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: I think the central problem here was that I’d seen a theatre adaptation of the novel less than a month before and the story was too fresh in my mind; there were no plot surprises awaiting me, and the scenes involving the painting itself, which I was most interested in reading for myself, felt ever so melodramatic. (DNF after 70 pages)

 

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart by Emily Nunn: After a dear brother’s suicide, a breakup from her fiancé, and a couple of spells in rehab to kick the alcohol habit that runs in her family, Nunn set off on a quest for what people across the country consider to be comfort food. She starts with a visit to a cousin in the South and some indulgence in ham biscuits and peanut brittle. Like Life from Scratch by Sasha Martin, this is too heavy on the sad backstory and not quite enough about food. (DNF @ 25%)

 

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen [trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw]: A subtle story of a fishing/farming family carving out a life on a bleak Norwegian island and dreaming of a larger life beyond. I can’t think of anything particularly negative to say about this; it just failed to hold my interest. I read over a third while on holiday in Amsterdam – reading it by the coast at Marken felt particularly appropriate – but once we got back I got caught up in other review books and couldn’t get back into it. (DNF @ 41%)

Favorite lines: “Nobody can leave an island. An island is a cosmos in a nutshell, where the stars slumber in the grass beneath the snow. But occasionally someone tries.”

 

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink [trans. from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt]: I planned to review this for German Literature Month back in November. To start with it was vaguely reminiscent of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos and Me and Kaminski, with an artist trying to micromanage the afterlife of his painting and keep hold of the wife he stole off its owner, but it quickly tailed off. The narrator, who is the lawyer representing the painter, soon declares himself in love with the portrait subject – a sudden disclosure I couldn’t quite believe. (DNF @ 23%)

 

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: I read 4 out of 8 stories. Machado writes bizarre, sex-saturated mash-ups of fairy tales and urban legends. My favorite was “Mothers,” about queer family-making and the abuse lurking under the surface of so many relationships. This author is absurdly good at lists, all through “Inventory” and in the shrine to queer icons in “Mothers.” But all the stories go on too long (especially the Law and Order, SVU one, which felt to me like pure filler) and would no doubt be punchier if shorter. Not a book for me, but one I’d recommend to others who’d appreciate the edgy feminist bent.

 

The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas by Cleveland Amory: A pointless sequel to what was already a rather lackluster story. I read the first chapter and gave the rest a quick skim. It feels like it’s been spun out of a real dearth of material for the sake of prolonging 15 minutes of fame. A whole chapter on how Polar Bear the cat doesn’t really like the trappings of celebrity? Yawn. I’m usually a cat book person, but not in Amory’s case.

 

Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg: I was most interested in reading “Howl,” having seen the wonderful James Franco movie a few years ago and then encountered Ginsberg earlier this year as a minor character in The Nix. I read up through Part I of “Kaddish” and that felt like enough. These are such strange poems, full of startling body and food imagery and alliteration, that they made me laugh out loud in astonishment. They’re awesome in their own way, but also so unsettling I didn’t want to read too much at once.

 


And a few books I was really looking forward to this year but ended up disappointed with:

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Egan focuses on interesting historical side notes such as a woman working as a diver at Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII, but in general her insertion of period detail is not very natural. I couldn’t help but compare this with her previous novel, the highly original A Visit from the Goon Squad. By comparison, Manhattan Beach is merely serviceable historical fiction and lost my interest as it went into flashbacks or veered away to spend time with other characters. My interest was only ever in Anna. Overall not a stand-out work. (Reviewed for The Bookbag.)

 

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Impressive in scope and structure, but rather frustrating. If you’re hoping for another History of Love, you’re likely to come away disappointed: while that book touched the heart; this one is mostly cerebral. Metafiction, the Kabbalah, and some alternative history featuring Kafka are a few of the major elements, so think about whether those topics attract or repel you. Looking a bit deeper, this is a book about Jewish self-invention and reinvention. All told, there’s a lot to think about here: more questions than answers, really. Interesting, for sure, but not the return to form I’d hoped for.

 

George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl: There are some endearing characters and enjoyable scenes in this tale of an odd couple’s marriage, but in a desperate wish to avoid being boring, Pearl has too often chosen to be edgy rather than sweet, and experimental rather than thorough. I think she intended to tell an empowering parable that counters slut-shaming, but it’s so hard to like Lizzie. The writing is notably poor in the earliest sections, where the attempt at a breathless, chatty style is a distraction. Dutiful research into football hardly helps, instead making this seem like a weak imitation of John Irving.

 

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn: An underwhelming King Lear adaptation. (Didn’t Jane Smiley already give us a less caustic version of this daughters-fighting-over-the-family-business scenario?) It is Dunbar and his emotional awakening and reconciliation with Florence (Cordelia) that power the book. The other two sadistic, nymphomaniac daughters and their henchmen are too thinly drawn and purposelessly evil to be believed.

 


What books disappointed you this year? Were there any you just couldn’t finish?

Classic of the Month: George Orwell’s 1984

Big Brother, the Thought Police, Newspeak, doublethink, 2 + 2 = 5, Room 101. I’d never read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four until this month, but so many of its concepts and catchphrases were familiar to me; they’ve entered into popular culture to a remarkable extent. I found that the basics of the plot, and even the specifics of the horrifying climax, were already somewhere in the back of my mind. That’s how much of a household story this is. And, given the recent rise of authoritarian regimes, 1984 is back in style – if it ever went out.

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Published in 1949, just four years after Animal Farm, the novel imagines a post-Revolution future in which Oceania (England) is alternately at war with Eurasia and Eastasia. It’s a dystopian vision of bombing raids, public hangings and triumphant film reels of refugees drowning. Absolute loyalty to Big Brother and his Party and total hatred of dissidents are required. Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth – an ironic name if ever there was one. His job is to doctor newspaper articles to ‘rectify’ the past. Scrutinized constantly by a telescreen, he ‘corrects’ the written record and burns the evidence in memory holes.

But Winston can’t forget that he once saw a photograph proving that several scapegoats who were executed were actually innocent, and ever since he has been unfaithful to the Party in his heart. “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” He makes two bids for freedom: his thought life, as revealed in his diary, and (in Part II) an affair with Julia, a fellow rebel he meets in a rented room above a pawnbroker’s. They join the Brotherhood, Emmanuel Goldstein’s anti-Party movement, and read from his manifesto. Impossible to forget, though, that there’s a Part III to come, and their happy nonconformity is unlikely to survive the Thought Police’s vigilance.

A 1984-themed window at Blackwells in Oxford.
A 1984-themed window at Blackwells in Oxford.

I can’t say I enjoyed this novel exactly. It was more a case of recognizing its cultural importance and prescience about perennial political trends. What I most liked was the irony of the Party’s rebranding: the Ministry of Love is the torture headquarters, for instance, and the propaganda is rife with oxymorons (“WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”). I also appreciated Orwell’s efforts to humanize Winston via his memories of his mother and sister, his estranged wife, and his simple love of beauty – as when he buys a glass and coral paperweight on a whim. Reassuringly, the relationship with Julia isn’t just about sex but is an example of true love against the odds: when Winston tells her “I’m thirty-nine years old. I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. I’ve got five false teeth,” she replies “I couldn’t care less.”

And yet there are parts of the book that are truly tedious, like the extracts from Goldstein’s manifesto and the appendix on Newspeak. Like many dystopians, this somewhat sacrifices story in the service of ideas. It certainly could have been cut by up to one-third. However, it’s still full of potent reminders like these about resisting misinformation:

I don’t imagine that we can alter anything in our own lifetime. But one can imagine little knots of resistance springing up here and there—small groups of people banding themselves together, and gradually growing, and even leaving a few records behind, so that the next generation can carry on where we leave off.

At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little. … We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual, generation after generation. In the face of the Thought Police, there is no other way.

If he [the average citizen of Oceania] were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.

I found it rewarding to follow this with Margaret Atwood’s 2003 essay on Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four was the direct model for the feminist dystopia she started writing in the real 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale. She helped me realize something I hadn’t due to my eyes glazing over during the appendix: it’s in the past tense, looking back on a repressive government. In other words, she writes, “the regime has fallen … language and individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. … Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he’s usually been given credit for.” In homage, she ended The Handmaid’s Tale with a section set hundreds of years in the future, when Offred’s world is studied by academics.

That’s important to remember: one day our current situation, horrible as it might feel to live through, will be nothing but a brief chapter in the history books. It’s up to us, though, to help ensure that whatever succeeds it is much better.

My rating: 3.5 star rating


Next month: I plan to choose a short classic from “The Ten Best Novels for Thirtysomethings” list in The Novel Cure; my options are The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Brontë), The Rector’s Daughter (F.M. Mayor), and The Jungle (Upton Sinclair), all of which I own. Let me know which would be your pick.

Review: The Heart Goes Last, Margaret Atwood

heart goes lastLast month an unsolicited e-copy of The Heart Goes Last landed in my inbox: a random Thursday afternoon present for this Margaret Atwood fan. I was meant to review it for one of the websites I write for, but a misunderstanding meant the book was also assigned to someone else. So while I won’t be getting paid for my review (Boooooo!), I was still grateful for the opportunity to read the book early.

Atwood’s last project before this was the Maddaddam dystopian trilogy, and while there are still some dystopian elements here, she is blending speculative elements with realist social commentary in a way that makes me hope she is leaving some of the overt absurdity of her science-fiction scenarios behind.

maddaddamI didn’t dislike the Maddaddam books per se, but nor did I feel that it was necessary to turn Oryx and Crake into a trilogy, especially when the two following novels only re-examined events from different perspectives, filling in backstory rather than adding new present action (see my Maddaddam review on For Books’ Sake). It felt like a fairly indulgent ten-year project distracting Atwood from producing potential gems along the lines of The Blind Assassin, one of my favorites.

The Heart Goes Last began as four Positron short stories that appeared on the Byliner website between 2012 and 2013. We’re in a vague post-financial crisis, post-environmental apocalypse world, a little like California or The Road but not quite as drastic. Stan and Charmaine are a married couple reduced to living in their car. Charmaine works in a bar, but Stan has lost his job and won’t quite stoop to his brother Conor’s level of moving money around offshore. (It’s no coincidence his brother’s nickname is “Con.”)

One day Charmaine sees an ad for the Positron Project and convinces Stan to sign them up. Participants spend every other month working in the model community of Consilience…and every other month in prison. “DO TIME NOW, BUY TIME FOR OUR FUTURE!” one slogan reads. They share their home with another couple on an alternate schedule.

It's all wholesome in Consilience. ("Doris Day - 1957" by Unknown photographer. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.)
It’s all wholesome in Consilience. (“Doris Day – 1957” by Unknown photographer. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.)

It’s a little like Pleasantville or The Truman Show: Consilience is stuck somewhere between the 1950s and a sustainable future. Doris Day and Bing Crosby play over the speakers (“The past is so much safer, because whatever’s in it has already happened”), but everyone rides scooters and cheerfully goes about their jobs – Stan as a poultry inspector, and Charmaine in hospital procurement.

Yet Positron has some sordid and even sinister side-projects. With an echo of Animal Farm, Atwood emphasizes how seductive this ultimately oppressive community can seem:

“Hey. Everyone’s different.” / “But some are more different than others.”

Things get weird as foul-mouthed Stan becomes obsessed with the sex lives of their alternates, Max and Jasmine. He imagines their lovemaking to be so much more passionate than his with Charmaine. Yet Charmaine, so seemingly bland and innocent (her worst curse is “Darn it to heck”), is up to something. What is she doing sneaking around derelict houses, and what is her top-secret job within the prison?

Margaret Atwood (from her Goodreads page).
Margaret Atwood (from her Goodreads page).

Gradually both Stan and Charmaine, separately, get caught up in a conspiracy to take Positron down from the inside. The wacky plot involves “prostibot” sex dolls (tagline: “Better than real”), Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe impersonators, and a Midsummer Night’s Dream-esque procedure that reprograms people so they fall in love with the first creature they see after they wake up.

This is all reasonably good fun, but, as with the Maddaddam books, the technology and naming tip over into pure silliness, and here there’s an added layer of raunchiness I’m not accustomed to seeing from Atwood. In distinguishing the fake from the real, the novel goes deep into unpleasant themes of fetishism and voyeurism.

I’m not as down on the book as the Kirkus reviewer (their hatchet job is quite amusing), but I did find it problematic. Charmaine is whiny and annoying throughout, as well as implausibly naïve. All the characters are similarly one-dimensional, even those with secrets. Moreover, the plot takes plenty of unexpected turns with some Shakespearean comedy reversals, but it’s downright ludicrous at times. There’s even a situation straight out of Ted, one of the worst movies I’ve had the bad luck to sample.

In short, a somewhat disappointing one-off from Atwood. Almost the best thing about it is the title, which refers to both biological death and the difficulty of faking true love. I long for the doyenne of Canadian fiction to return to contemporary realism or even historical fiction. There’s just as much scope in those genres for serious social commentary as there is in speculative fiction. Or maybe I should just delve into her extensive back catalogue instead.

My rating: 3 star rating


 

Have you read Atwood’s recent books? What’s your take?