Tag Archives: New York City

Paul Auster Reading Week: Winter Journal & The New York Trilogy

Before this year, I’d read only one book by Paul Auster: Timbuktu, which fit into last year’s all-animal 20 Books of Summer for its canine main character. This year I’ve enjoyed having Annabel’s Paul Auster Reading Week as an excuse to binge on more Auster, including one of his memoirs, Winter Journal, and his most famous set of novels, the New York Trilogy. I’m reading another two Auster books, one fiction and nonfiction, and will see if I can finish and write them up before the week ends.

 

Winter Journal (2012)

This is one of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve ever read. Approaching age 64 and the winter of his life, Auster decided to assemble his most visceral memories. Here he parades them past in a seemingly random order yet manages to give a sense of the sweep of his life. The use of the second person draws readers in to (re-)experience things along with the author, while also creating an artistic distance between the subject and his reminiscences. Auster describes his aim thus:

Time is running out, after all. Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one. A catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.

His life reappears through scars, through accidents and near-misses, through what his hands felt and his eyes observed. A three-year-old rips his cheek open on a protruding nail in a department store. A teenager slowly builds up a portfolio of sexual experiences. A young man lives and works in Paris and the South of France. A marriage to one fellow author (Lydia Davis) ends and a relationship with another (Siri Hustvedt) begins. A fiftysomething rushing to get home to the toilet makes an ill-advised turn against traffic and totals his car – luckily, he and his family escape unhurt. Numbness after his mother’s death cedes to a panic attack.

I particularly enjoyed the 53-page section in which Auster gives tours through the 21 places he’s lived since infancy, recounting the details he remembers of the dwellings and what happened during his time there. It’s impressive how much he can condense, but also how much he can convey in just a few pages on each home. This is the sort of format I could imagine borrowing for a short autobiographical piece – it would be a way of redeeming that involuntarily nomadic period when my husband and I moved every six to 18 months.

Reading this alongside the New York Trilogy allowed me to spot the ways, big and small, in which those novels draw on Auster’s life story. I’m now keen to read more of his nonfiction, especially The Invention of Solitude, which offended his relatives by revealing the shameful family story of how his grandmother shot and killed his grandfather in their kitchen.


Annabel says: “The book is written in the second person – addressing himself; it gives a real sense of intimacy to his story. … Auster is an unconventional, analytical and eloquent writer, and this unconventional memoir was a delight to read, he can look with humour at himself as well as being serious.”

Laura F. says: “You know how people say they’d read anything by their favourite author, even a grocery list? Winter Journal gets pretty close to that territory. … I’ve never read a memoir like this, and though focused on the physical, it’s a fully emotional experience.”


Some favorite lines:

“as long as you continue to travel, the nowhere that lies between the here of home and the there of somewhere else will continue to be one of the places where you live.”

“We are all aliens to ourselves, and if we have any sense of who we are, it is only because we live inside the eyes of others.”

“you can only conclude that every life is marked by a number of close calls, that everyone who manages to reach the age you have come to now has already wriggled out of a number of potentially absurd, nonsensical deaths. All in the course of what you would call ordinary life.”

Readalikes: I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell & The Lost Properties of Love by Sophie Ratcliffe

 

 


The New York Trilogy

(also my Doorstopper of the Month at 580 pages)

 

City of Glass (1985)

A metafictional mystery about a crime writer named Daniel Quinn who turns private investigator when he gets a phone call asking for the Paul Auster Detective Agency. This is one of those books where what actually happens is a lot less important than the atmosphere it creates. So what feels essential to me here is the sense of a labyrinthine New York City and a confusion of languages and relationships. Quinn, who is helpfully untethered after the death of his wife and son, is hired to tail Peter Stillman’s father, who has recently been released from a mental hospital, where he was sentenced after being judged insane for keeping his son in isolation in a dark apartment for nine years.

Feral children, maps, eggs, the Tower of Babel and Don Quixote are some of the recurring sources of metaphors in a deliberately disorienting and intertextually rich short novel that kept me turning the pages even when I didn’t know precisely what was going on. We get a glimpse of Auster himself, and are invited to muse on such tiny subjects as destiny, the limitations of language, the purpose of books, and the nature of truth. I’m curious to see whether the other two novels follow on from the story at all or just resemble it thematically.

 

Ghosts (1986)

I jumped straight into this from City of Glass, and it suffered by comparison. It is not a sequel per se, because it has different characters and is set in the late 1940s instead of the early 1980s, but it shares some of the same concerns (with literature, identity, doubling, the essential otherness of the writer, and so on) and again is a sort of metafictional mystery.

Part of why I couldn’t take this novella entirely seriously is the silly naming: White hires Blue to trail Black (really; all of the secondary characters are named after colors, too). It turns out Black is a writer who does little besides sit in his apartment, writing. Only when Blue disguises himself as a tramp and then as a salesman and meets Black in various other contexts does he realize that Black, too, is an investigator … writing up a case of following a writer who hardly leaves his desk.

While I appreciated the circularity and the uncertainty over whether these accidental twins would destroy each other, as well as the literary references to Whitman, Thoreau and Hawthorne, the whole felt slightly inconsequential (“Blue watches Black, and little of anything happens.”). Plotlessness is part of the point, but makes for only a moderately interesting read.


[There is one coded reference to Auster here: the fact that the book opens on February 3, 1947, the day he was born.]

 

The Locked Room (1986)

While most of the New York Trilogy is told in the third person, this is a first-person narrative that seems to pick up where City of Glass left off. It begins in 1977, when the unnamed narrator gets a letter from Sophie Fanshawe, the wife of his childhood best friend, telling him that Fanshawe disappeared six months ago, and despite the best efforts of a detective, Quinn (in another link to CoG, the narrator encounters Peter Stillman on a later trip to Paris), no trace can be found. The narrator has been named Fanshawe’s literary executor and takes it upon himself to get the man’s unpublished work out into the world: plays are produced, novels are published. He also starts writing a biography of the friend he always envied.

Except it’s more like he’s becoming Fanshawe, especially when he marries Sophie. Doubling has been a major theme of the trilogy, and here the metaphorical kill-or-be-killed situation seems to turn literal at the conclusion, which I didn’t particularly understand (e.g. he acquires and destroys a red notebook – is this in some way meant to be the same red notebook Quinn left behind at the end of CoG?). The narrator presents himself as the author of all three books, and asserts, “These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about. I don’t claim to have solved any problems.”

The metafictional aspect of this novel is that Fanshawe’s early life is a lot like Auster’s as revealed in Winter Journal, while Sophie’s resembles his wife Siri Hustvedt’s (and the pair would later name their daughter Sophie).

 

Themes of the trilogy:

  • Identity complications, including disguises, doubles and substitutes
  • Writers and writing; the creator versus characters
  • The limits of language (e.g. Stillman’s monologue in CoG is astonishing)
  • Freedom/randomness versus fate

 

One representative passage from each volume:

  • “New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighbourhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. … New York was the nowhere he had built around himself” (City of Glass)
  • “Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life. In some sense, a writer has no life of his own. Even when he’s there, he’s not really there. / Another ghost. / Exactly.” (Ghosts)
  • “In the end, each life is no more than the sum of contingent facts, a chronicle of chance intersections, of flukes, of random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose.” (The Locked Room)

 

My rating for the trilogy as a whole:

 

 

Have you tried anything by Paul Auster? Grab one of his books and join us for this week’s readalong!

Two Recommended January Releases: Dominicana and Let Me Be Frank

Much as I’d like to review books in advance of their release dates, that doesn’t seem to be how things are going this year. I hope readers will find it useful to learn about recent releases they might have missed.

This month I’m featuring a fictionalized immigration story from the Dominican Republic and a collection of autobiographical comics by a New Zealander.

 

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

(Published by John Murray on the 23rd)

It’s easy to assume that all the immigration (or Holocaust, or WWI; whatever) stories have been told. This is proof that that is not true; it felt completely fresh to me. Ana Canción is 11 when Juan Ruiz first proposes to her in 1961 – the same year dictator Rafael Trujillo is assassinated, throwing their native Dominican Republic into chaos. The Ruiz brothers are admired for their entrepreneurial spirit; they jet back and forth to New York City to earn money they plan to invest in a restaurant back home. To Ana’s parents, pairing their daughter with a man with such good prospects makes financial sense, so though Ana doesn’t love him and knows nothing about sex, she finds herself married to Juan at age 15. With fake papers that claim she’s 19, she arrives in New York on the first day of 1965 to start a new life.

It is not the idyll she expected. Ana often feels confused and isolated in their tiny apartment, and the political unrest in NYC (e.g. the assassination of Malcolm X) and in DR mirrors the turbulence of her marriage. Juan is violent and unfaithful, and although Ana dreams of leaving him she soon learns that she is pregnant and has to think of her duty to her family, who expect to join her in America. The content of the novel could have felt like heavy going, but Ana is such a plucky and confiding narrator that you’re drawn into her world and cheer for her as she comes up with ways to earn money of her own (such as selling pastelitos to homesick factory workers and at the World’s Fair) and figures out what she wants from life.

This allowed me to imagine what it would be like to have an arranged marriage and arrive in a country not knowing a word of the language. Cruz based the story on her mother’s experience, even though her mother thought her life was too common and boring to interest anyone. The literary style – short chapters with no speech marks – could be offputting for some but worked for me, and I loved the tongue-in-cheek references to I Love Lucy. Had I only managed to read this in December, it would have been on my Best of 2019 list – it was first published in September by Flatiron Books, USA.

 

Let Me Be Frank by Sarah Laing

(Published by Lightning Books on the 16th)

Laing is a novelist and comics artist from New Zealand known for her previous graphic memoir, Mansfield and Me, about her obsession with acclaimed NZ writer Katherine Mansfield. This collection brings together the autobiographical comics that originally appeared on Laing’s blog of the same title in 2010‒19. She started posting the comics when she was writer-in-residence at the Frank Sargeson Centre in Auckland. (I know the name Sargeson because he helped Janet Frame when she was early in her career.)

So what is the book about? All of life, really: growing up with type 1 diabetes, having boyfriends, being part of a family, the constant niggle of body issues, struggling as a writer, and trying to be a good mother. Other specific topics include her teenage obsession with music (especially Morrissey) and her run-ins with various animals (a surprising number of dead possums!). She ruminates about the times when she hasn’t done enough to help people who were in trouble. She also admits her confusion about fashion: she is always looking for, but never finding, ‘her look’. And is she modeling a proper female identity for her children? “I feel like I’m betraying feminism, buying my daughter a fairy princess dress,” she frets.

But even as she expresses these worries, she wonders how genuine she can be since they form the basis of her art. Is she just “publically performing my neuroses”? The work/life divide is especially tricksy when your life inspires your work.

I took half a month to read these comics on screen, usually just a few pages a day. It’s a tough book to assess as a whole because there is such a difference between the full-color segments and the sketch-like black-and-white ones. There is also a ‘warts-and-all’ approach here, with typos and cross-outs kept in. (Two that made me laugh were “aesophegus” [for oesophagus] and “Diana Anthill”!) Overall, though, I think this is a relatable and fun book that would suit fans of Alison Bechdel and Roz Chast but should also draw in readers new to the graphic novel format.


My thanks to Eye/Lightning Books for sending me an e-book to review.

 

What recent releases can you recommend?

Final 2019 Review Books: Brodesser-Akner, Cregan & McCulloch

The final three review books of the year (not counting DNFs, which will be briefly dispatched on Sunday): a much-hyped novel set in contemporary New York City, a memoir of suicidal depression and recuperation, and a study of linguistics in the Internet era.

 

Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

According to the aggregated best-of lists (which Kate has surveyed here), this was one of the top two novels of 2019. I’m going to have to shrug my shoulders and admit, I don’t get it. To me this didn’t stand out at all from the sea of fiction about crumbling marriages and upper-middle-class angst. Toby Fleishman is 41-year-old head of hepatology at a New York City hospital. He recently split from his wife, Rachel, agent to the creator of a Hamilton-style phenomenon. Not content with their comfortable lifestyle, Rachel hankers for true wealth.

When Rachel goes AWOL at a yoga retreat, Toby is left in charge of their children: Hannah, 11, and Solly, nine. He ferries them to and from summer camp, all the while bombarded with dirty texts and semi-nude selfies from the women he’s flirting with via a dating app. Had this novel been written by a man, people would have been up in arms about the unpleasant sexual content. But this is not just written by a woman; it’s also narrated by a woman: Elizabeth Epstein Slater, a former journalist turned stay-at-home mom. She and Toby became friends on their junior year abroad in Israel and have started hanging out more after his divorce.

So this is a book within a book Elizabeth is writing about one turbulent summer in her friends’ lives, but also her own – she’s dissatisfied with her staid marriage. It’s also Brodesser-Akner’s winking commentary on macho or moralizing fiction: “this was the only way to get someone to listen to a woman—to tell her story through a man” and “none of my characters were likable,” Elizabeth thinks. But attempts to humanize Toby and Rachel fell flat for me. Sadness over the loss of one patient was insufficient to endear me to the randy Toby, and early life with a grim grandmother and severe postpartum trauma couldn’t make me care about whether Rachel was coming back. I also never fully suspended disbelief about Elizabeth’s intimate knowledge of the Fleishmans.

This very New York novel started out promising, with echoes of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? or The Nest. There are some perceptive passages about marriage, and the writing in general is more than capable. But the story didn’t feel nearly fresh enough to justify all that acclaim, or the 373-page length.


With thanks to Wildfire for the free copy for review.

 

The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery by Mary Cregan

Cregan has a scar that reminds her, every time she notices it, of how close she came to taking her own life decades ago. In 1983, at the age of 27, she gave birth to a baby girl, Anna, who died two days later of a heart defect. The loss plunged her into a depression so severe that she made a halfhearted suicide attempt some weeks later and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she was given electroconvulsive therapy. One morning in the hospital, she brought a glass jar of lotion into the shower with her, smashed it, and took a shard to her throat. She only narrowly missed her carotid artery. Cregan wonders if, had she been given appropriate medication, all this heartache could have been avoided.

“I’ve often wished I could undo my own act (if indeed ‘I’ and ‘my’ are accurate words for a self in the condition I was in.)”

“It took a long time to work all of this out, because it’s very hard to see yourself clearly when depressed. The problem is that you think with your mind, but your mind is ill and untrustworthy. Your mind is your enemy.”

Alongside her own winding story, the author surveys the history of mental health treatment in the United States. This felt more familiar and thus engaged me less than the personal material. Nevertheless, I would recommend this forthright memoir to anyone keen to read about the experience of mental illness.


With thanks to the author for arranging my free copy from Lilliput Press, Dublin.

 

Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing by Gretchen McCulloch

I’m surprised by how fascinating I found this: I’m a late adopter when it comes to technology (I’m still resisting a smartphone) and I haven’t given linguistics a thought since that one class I took in college, but it turns out that my proofreader’s interest in the English language and my daily use of e-mail and social media were enough to make it extremely relevant. The Montreal linguist’s thesis is that the Internet popularized informal writing and quickly incorporates changes in slang and cultural references. At the same time, it still reflects regional and age-specific differences in the way that people speak (write conversationally).

The book goes deep into topics you may never have considered, like how we convey tone of voice through what we type and how emoji function as the gestures of the written word. You’ll get a breakdown of current generations in terms of when the Internet became the default in their life (I belong to what the author calls “Semi Internet People”: I remember first using the Internet in a classroom in seventh grade, getting dial-up AOL at home not long thereafter, and opening my own Hotmail account in high school), a history of lolcats, and musings on the metaphorical use of periods and capital letters. If you are among the unconvinced, you’ll also be schooled in the appeal of gifs and memes.

Some trivia I picked up:

  • In 2015 the tears of joy emoji became the most popular emoji, more used than the smiley-face emoticon.
  • For many of us the Internet serves as what sociologists call a “third place” besides home and work where we can socialize.
  • Only 5–8% of Internet users are bloggers.
  • “Subtweeting” (as in subliminal) and “vaguebooking” are when you post about a situation without giving any specifics.
  • Parents often refer to a child by an initial or nickname so the child won’t have a searchable social media presence.
  • The Library of Congress now archives memes (The Lolcat Bible, Urban Dictionary, etc.).

McCulloch portrays language as a constantly changing network, such that terms like “standard” and “correct” no longer apply. She writes with such geeky enthusiasm that you’ll happily accompany her down any linguistic alley.


With thanks to Harvill Secker for the free copy for review.

Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again

Although I’ve confessed to being generally wary of sequels, and I am scrupulously avoiding this autumn’s other high-profile sequel (you know the one!), I loved Olive Kitteridge enough to continue straight on to Elizabeth Strout’s sequel, Olive, Again, which I thought even better.

 

Olive Kitteridge (2008)

I have a soft spot for literature’s curmudgeons – the real-life ones like J. R. Ackerley, Shaun Bythell and Geoff Dyer as well as the fictional protagonists like Dr. James Darke in Rick Gekoski’s debut novel, Cassandra Darke in Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel, Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel, Hendrik Groen in his two titular Dutch diaries, and Frederick Lothian in Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions. So it’s no surprise that I warmed immediately to Olive Kitteridge, a grumpy retired math teacher in Crosby, Maine. She’s seen and heard it all, and will bluntly say just what she thinks. She has no time for anyone else’s nonsense.

I love our first introduction to her, three pages into the opening piece of this linked short story collection: she dismisses her pharmacist husband Henry’s new employee as “mousy,” and when Henry suggests inviting the girl and her husband over for dinner, snaps, Bartleby-like, “Not keen on it.” The great sadness of Olive’s life is the death of a fellow teacher she never quite had an affair with, but loved in her early forties. The great failure of Olive’s life is not connecting with her only son, Christopher, a podiatrist who marries a woman Olive dislikes and moves to California, then remarries a single mother of two and settles in New York City.

I started this in February and didn’t finish it until this month. I lost momentum after “A Different Road,” in which Olive and Henry are in a hostage situation in the local hospital. This was a darker turn than I was prepared for from Strout – I thought unrequited love and seasonal melancholy was as bleak as she’d go. But I hadn’t read “Tulips” yet, in which we learn that a local boy is in prison for stabbing a woman 29 times.

My least favorite stories were the ones that are about other locals and only mention Olive in passing, perhaps via advice she once gave a student. It almost feels like Strout wrote these as stand-alone stories and then, at her publisher’s behest, inserted a sentence or two so they could fit into a book about Olive. I much prefer the stories that are all about Olive, whether she’s engaging in a small act of rebellion on her son’s wedding day, visiting his new family in New York, or entertaining the prospect of romance some time after Henry’s death.

Olive is a sort of Everywoman; in her loneliness, frustrated desire and occasional depression she’s like us all. I wrote an article on linked short story collections some months ago and pretty much everyone I consulted mentioned Olive as the epitome. I didn’t love the book quite as much as I expected to, but I was very glad to have read it. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

[Apropos of nothing: this book contains the worst possible nickname for my name that I’ve ever encountered: Bicka-Beck.]

My rating:

 

Olive, Again (2019)

(Coming from Random House [USA] on October 15th and Viking [UK] on October 31st)

I liked this that little bit more than Olive Kitteridge for a number of reasons:

1) I read it over a matter of days rather than months, so the characters and happenings stayed fresher in my mind and I experienced it more as a novel-in-stories than as a set of discrete stories.

2) Olive, our Everywoman protagonist, approaches widowhood, decrepitude and death with her usual mixture of stoicism and bad temper. You may hear more about her bowels than you’d like to, but at least Strout is being realistic about the indignities of ageing.

3) Crucially, Olive has started, very late in life, to take a genuine interest in other people, such as her son’s second wife; a local girl who becomes Poet Laureate; and the carers who look after her following a heart attack. “Tell me what it’s like to be you,” she says one day to the Somali nurse who comes over from Shirley Falls. Comparing others’ lives with her own, she realizes she’s been lucky in many ways. Yet that doesn’t make understanding herself, or preparing for death, any easier.

4) There are connections to other Strout novels that made me intrigued to read further in her work. In “Exiles,” Bob and Jim Burgess of The Burgess Boys are reunited in Maine, while in the final story, “Friend,” Olive befriends a new fellow nursing home resident, Isabelle Daignault of Amy and Isabelle.

5) Olive delivers a baby!

As with the previous volume, I most liked the stories that stuck close to Olive, and least liked those that are primarily about others in Crosby or Shirley Falls and only mention Olive in passing, such as via a piece of advice she gave to one of her math students several decades ago. Twice Strout goes sexually explicit – a voyeurism situation, and a minor character who is a dominatrix; I felt these touches were unnecessary. Overall, though, these stories are of very high quality. The two best ones, worth seeking out whether you think you want to read the whole book or not, are “The Poet” and “Heart.”

My rating:

I read an advanced e-copy via NetGalley.

 

Are you a fan of Elizabeth Strout’s work? Do you plan to read Olive, Again?

This Really Isn’t About You by Jean Hannah Edelstein

This was the book I wanted Places I Stopped on the Way Home to be: a wry, bittersweet look at the unpredictability of life as an idealistic young woman in the world’s major cities. Edelstein’s memoir also fits into several of my favorite subgenres: it’s a family memoir, a medical memoir and a bereavement memoir all at once. The story opens in Brooklyn in February 2014 as Edelstein, age 32, is trying to build an adult life back in America after 14 years in London and Berlin. Two years earlier her father had told her via Skype from Baltimore that he had lung cancer, and she returned to the States to be closer to help. But when the moment came, she was still unprepared: “if someone had said to me: What would you like to be doing when your father dies? I would not have said, I would like to be looking for love on OKCupid. But I did not have the luxury to make that decision. Who does?”

Her father never smoked yet died of lung cancer; his mother had colon cancer and died at 42. Both had Lynch syndrome, a genetic disease that predisposes people to various cancers. Six months after her father’s death, Edelstein took a genetic test, as he had wanted her to, and learned that she was positive for the Lynch syndrome mutation. The book’s structure (“Between” – “Before” – “After”) plunges readers right into the middle of the family mess, then pulls back to survey her earlier life, everything from childhood holidays in her mother’s native Scotland to being a secretary to a London literary agent who hated her, before returning to the turning point of that diagnosis. How is she going to live with this knowledge hanging over her? Doctors want her to have a prophylactic hysterectomy, but how can she rule out children when she doesn’t yet have a partner in her life?

So many aspects of this book resonated for me, especially moving between countries and having a genetic disease in the family. Beyond those major themes, there were tiny moments that felt uncannily familiar to me, like when she’s helping her mother prepare for an online auction of the contents of the family home in Maryland, or comparing the average cleanliness and comfort of rental properties in England and the States. There are so many little memorable scenes in this memoir: having an allergic reaction to shellfish two days after her arrival in the States, getting locked out of her sublet and having to call an Uzbek/Israeli locksmith at 3 a.m., and subsisting on oatmeal three times a day in London versus going on all-expenses-paid trips to Estonia and Mauritius for a conference travel magazine.

This is a clear-eyed look at life in all its irony (such as the fact that she’s claustrophobic and dreads getting MRI tests when it was her own father, a nuclear physicist, who built the world’s first full-body MRI scanner at Aberdeen) and disappointment. I’m prizing this as a prime example of life writing that’s not comprehensive or strictly chronological yet gives a clear sense of the self in the context of a family and in the face of an uncertain future.

My rating:

 

Readalikes:

The Family Gene by Joselin Linder

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Mrs Gaskell & Me by Nell Stevens

 

Favorite lines:

“when I was in London, … I wondered if the problem of having my whole life ahead of me, free and clear and open for anything, was that having an unlimited number of options made the chance of choosing the wrong thing so high.”

“I was not yet old enough to realize that I’d never really know, that there would never be a time when I could think: I am here. This is me, without becoming uncertain again a moment later.”

“When I lived in England I drank a lot of tea, many cups a day, even though I didn’t like it. I learned quite fast after I arrived in London that drinking tea was an important way to connect with people: when I went over to their homes, or if we worked together in an office. Being offered a cup of tea meant that you were being offered an entry to something, and accepting it was important.”

 

This Really Isn’t About You was published by Picador on August 23rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

Blog Tour: Literary Landscapes, edited by John Sutherland

The sense of place can be a major factor in a book’s success – did you know there is a whole literary prize devoted to just this? (The Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, “for a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place.”) No matter when or where a story is set, an author can bring it to life through authentic details that appeal to all the senses, making you feel like you’re on Prince Edward Island or in the Gaudarrama Mountains even if you’ve never visited Atlantic Canada or central Spain. The 75 essays of Literary Landscapes, a follow-up volume to 2016’s celebrated Literary Wonderlands, illuminate the real-life settings of fiction from Jane Austen’s time to today. Maps, author and cover images, period and modern photographs, and other full-color illustrations abound.

Each essay serves as a compact introduction to a literary work, incorporating biographical information about the author, useful background and context on the book’s publication, and observations on the geographical location as it is presented in the story – often through a set of direct quotations. (Because each work is considered as a whole, you may come across spoilers, so keep that in mind before you set out to read an essay about a classic you haven’t read but still intend to.) The authors profiled range from Mark Twain to Yukio Mishima and from Willa Cather to Elena Ferrante. A few of the world’s great cities appear in multiple essays, though New York City as variously depicted by Edith Wharton, Jay McInerney and Francis Spufford is so different as to be almost unrecognizable as the same place.

One of my favorite pieces is on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. “Dickens was not interested in writing a literary tourist’s guide,” it explains; “He was using the city as a metaphor for how the human condition could, unattended, go wrong.” I also particularly enjoyed those on Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The fact that I used to live in Woking gave me a special appreciation for the essay on H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, “a novel that takes the known landscape and, brilliantly, estranges it.” The two novels I’ve been most inspired to read are Thomas Wharton’s Icefields (1995; set in Jasper, Alberta) and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (2005; set in New South Wales).

The essays vary subtly in terms of length and depth, with some focusing on plot and themes and others thinking more about the author’s experiences and geographical referents. They were contributed by academics, writers and critics, some of whom were familiar names for me – including Nicholas Lezard, Robert Macfarlane, Laura Miller, Tim Parks and Adam Roberts. My main gripe about the book would be that the individual essays have no bylines, so to find out who wrote a certain one you have to flick to the back and skim through all the contributor biographies until you spot the book in question. There are also a few more typos than I tend to expect from a finished book from a traditional press (e.g. “Lady Deadlock” in the Bleak House essay!). Still, it is a beautifully produced, richly informative tome that should make it onto many a Christmas wish list this year; it would make an especially suitable gift for a young person heading off to study English at university. It’s one to have for reference and dip into when you want to be inspired to discover a new place via an armchair visit.

 


Literary Landscapes will be published by Modern Books on Thursday, October 25th. My thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.

Recent Nonfiction Reads, in 200 Words Each: Black, Fee, Gaw

I’ve let months pass between receiving these books from the kindly publishers and following through with a review, so in an attempt to clear the decks I’m putting up just a short response to each, along with some favorite quotes.

 

All that Remains: A Life in Death by Sue Black

Black, a world-leading forensic anthropologist, was part of the war crimes investigation in Kosovo and the recovery effort in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami. She is frequently called into trials to give evidence, has advised the U.K. government on disaster preparedness, and is a co-author of the textbook Developmental Juvenile Osteology (2000). Whether working in a butcher’s shop as a teenager or exploring a cadaver for an anatomy class at the University of Aberdeen, she’s always been comfortable with death. “I never had any desire to work with the living,” she confesses; “The dead are much more predictable and co-operative.”

The book considers death in its clinical and personal aspects: the seven stages of postmortem alteration and the challenges of identifying the sex and age of remains; versus her own experiences with losing her grandmother, uncle and parents. Black wants her skeleton to go to Dundee University’s teaching collection. It doesn’t creep her out to think of that, no more than it did to meet her future cadaver, a matter-of-fact, curious elderly gentleman named Arthur. My favorite chapter was on Kosovo; elsewhere I found the mixture of science and memoir slightly off, and the voice never fully drew me in.

Favorite line: “Perhaps forensic anthropologists are the sin-eaters of our day, addressing the unpleasant and unimaginable so that others don’t have to.”

My rating:


All that Remains was published by Doubleday on April 19th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Places I Stopped on the Way Home: A Memoir of Chaos and Grace by Meg Fee

Fee came to New York City to study drama at Julliard. Her short essays, most of them titled after New York locations (plus a few set further afield), are about the uncertainty of her twenties: falling in and out of love, having an eating disorder, and searching for her purpose. She calls herself “a mess of disparate wants, a small universe in bloom.” New York is where she has an awful job she hates, can’t get the man she’s in love with to really notice her, and hops between terrible apartments – including one with bedbugs, the subject of my favorite essay – and yet the City continues to lure her with its endless opportunities.

I think this book could mean a lot to women who are younger than me or have had experiences similar to the author’s. I found the essays slightly repetitive, and rather unkindly wondered what this privileged young woman had to whine about. It’s got the same American, generically spiritual self-help vibe that you get from authors like Brené Brown and Elizabeth Gilbert. Despite her loneliness, Fee retains a romantic view of things, and the way she writes about her crushes and boyfriends never truly connected with me.

Some favorite lines:

“Writing felt like wrangling storm clouds, which is to say, impossible. But so did life. Writing became a way to make peace with that which was flawed.”

“I have let go of the idea of permanency and roots and What Comes Next.”

My rating:


Places I Stopped on the Way Home was published by Icon Books on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

The Pull of the River: A journey into the wild and watery heart of Britain by Matt Gaw

A watery travelogue in the same vein as works by Roger Deakin and Alys Fowler, this jolly yet reflective book traces Gaw’s canoe trips down Britain’s rivers. His vessel was “the Pipe,” a red canoe built by his friend James Treadaway, who also served as his companion for many of the jaunts. Starting with his local river, the Waveney in East Anglia, and finishing with Scotland’s Great Glen Way, the quest was a way of (re)discovering his country by sensing the currents of history and escaping to the edge of danger.

Access issues, outdoor toileting, getting stuck on mudflats, and going under in the winter – it wasn’t always a comfortable method of travel. But Gaw’s expressive writing renders even rubbish- and sewage-strewn landscapes beautiful in their own way: “grim bunting made from discarded bags of dog poo,” “a savannah of quivering, moussey mud” and “cormorants hunched together like sinister penguins, some holding ragged wings to the wind in taxidermic poses.”

My favorite chapters were about pollution and invasive species, as seen at the Lark, and about the beaver reintroduction project in Devon (we have friends who live near it). I’m rooting for this to make next year’s Wainwright Prize longlist.

A favorite passage:

“I feel like I’ve shed the rust gathered from being landlocked and lazy. The habits and responsibilities of modern life can be hard to shake off, the white noise difficult to muffle. But the water has returned me to my senses. I’ve been reborn in a baptism of the Waveney [et al.]”

My rating:


The Pull of the River was published by Elliott & Thompson on April 5th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

 

Have you read any stand-out nonfiction recently?

Orchid & the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes

Gael Foess, the antiheroine of Caoilinn Hughes’ debut novel, is a trickster. When we first meet her in Dublin in 2002, the 11-year-old is promptly kicked out of school for trying to sell other girls “virginity pills.” As the years pass we see her con her way into a London Business School interview, self-assuredly teach a literature class when her professor doesn’t show up, pretend to be a journalist to get an exclusive interview, and use deception to try to boost the careers of both her mother, Sive (a conductor), and her younger brother, Guthrie (a painter and single dad). In the title metaphor, which refers to an orchid species that lures pollinating wasps, Gael is the seductive flower that gets what it wants. We’re also invited to think of her, with that typically Gael-ic name, as an incarnation of mythological Irish hero Cúchulainn.

The novel spans about nine years: a politically turbulent decade that opens with Iraq War protests and closes with the Occupy movement in New York City. The financial crisis temporarily jolts Gael and Guthrie’s father, Jarleth, a high-flying Barclays banker who leaves the family in 2008. The biblical parable of the talents, which he recounted to Gael when she was a little girl, comes back to resonate: It’s a potent reminder that money and skills don’t get distributed fairly in this life. When Gael gets to New York in 2011, she plans to redress the balance in two paradoxical ways: living in the Occupy camp and taking part in protests; and secretly earning her brother a fortune on his modern art. For even while decrying her father’s privilege, she indulges her own love of fine things; even if ironically, she says that she aspires to be in the 1%, too.

With all her contradictions, Gael is an unforgettable character. I also found Guthrie fascinating. It was serendipitous that I read this novel alongside Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book, Brainstorm. Guthrie was a mystically religious child and suffered from seizures, which doctors determined weren’t due to epilepsy but to somatic delusions – psychological rather than physiological. The seizures, ironically, became a boon because they inspire his art: “they’re hallowed and each aura is an absolution – a benison – and not just a synaptic blip.”

The U.S. cover

Hughes is wonderfully adept at voices, bringing secondary characters to life largely through how they speak. I especially warmed to Art, Sive’s boyfriend, who’s a Yorkshireman; and Harper, Gael’s OCD-plagued flatmate from Las Vegas. Even a brief run-in with American officialdom gets the perfect deadpan rendering: “United States Customs has no interest in surprises. Matter of fact, we hate surprises.” The novel often has a frenetic pace – an energy that’s well matched by the virtuosic use of language, with wordplay, neologisms, and metaphors drawn from art, music and nature. An orchestra is compared to a flock of starlings; a despondent Sive “began to resemble a bass clef.” The Irish are like radishes: “Pink on the outside, white underneath. Speck of mud on their cheeks.” Harper’s entire upbringing is pithily reduced to an “only-childhood of sprinkler weather, window glare and doughnut glazing.” I also loved this tiny poem of a phrase: “sobbing hampers syntax.”

My only real misgiving about the novel is the ending: After Gael comes back from New York, things sort of fizzle out. I even wondered if the story line could have stopped a chapter earlier. But in a way it makes sense to get no tidy closure for our protagonist. Gael is still only 20 years old at the book’s end, so it’s no surprise that she remains a restless wanderer. I certainly wouldn’t object to hearing about her further adventures in a sequel. Hughes is an exciting writer who has rightfully attracted a lot of buzz for her debut, and this is sure to be one of my novels of the year. It’s a perfect follow-on read from Tom Rachman’s The Italian Teacher, and I’d also recommend it highly to fans of Sweetbitter, The Art of Fielding, The Nix, and The Life and Death of Sophie Stark. Watch out for it in two weeks’ time.

 

My rating:


Orchid & the Wasp will be published by Oneworld in the UK on June 7th. It’s not out in the USA until July 10th (Hogarth). My thanks to Margot Weale for a proof copy for review.

Better Late than Never: City on Fire

I aim to read one book of 500+ pages in each month of 2017. My first Doorstopper of the Month is City on Fire, the 2015 debut novel from Garth Risk Hallberg. It’s common knowledge that Hallberg earned a six-figure advance for this 911-page evocation of a revolutionary time in New York City. When it was first published I didn’t think I had the fortitude to tackle it and had in mind to wait for the inevitable miniseries instead, but when I won a copy in a goodie bag from Hungerford Bookshop I decided to go for it. I started the novel just after Christmas and finished it a few days ago, so like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch it took me roughly a month to read because I had many other books on the go at the same time.

img_1069Opening on Christmas Eve 1976 and peaking with the July 1977 blackout, the novel brings its diverse cast together through a shooting in Central Park. Insider traders, the aimless second generation of some of the city’s wealthiest aristocrats, anarchist punk rockers, an African-American schoolteacher, a journalist and his Vietnamese neighbor, a fireworks manufacturer, a policeman crippled by childhood polio – the characters fill in the broad canvas of the city, everywhere from Wall Street boardrooms to drug dens.

The real achievement is not how Hallberg draws each character but how he fits them all together. The closest comparison I can make is with one of Dickens’s long novels, say David Copperfield, where, especially as you approach the conclusion, you get surprising meet-ups of figures from different realms of life. The relaxed chronology reaches back to the 1950s and forward to 2003 to give hints of where these people came from and what fate holds for them.

City on Fire might sound like a crime drama – I can see a miniseries working in a manner comparable to The Wire – and the mystery of who shot Samantha Cicciaro does indeed last from about page 80 to page 800-something. But finding out who shot her and why (or why investment bankers would be funding a posse of anarchists, or who pushed a journalist into the river) is something of an anticlimax. The journey is the point, and the city is the real star, even though it’s described with a kind of affectionate disdain in the passages that follow:

The stench of the basement level reached him even here, like hot-dog water mixed with roofing tar and left in an alley to rot

The park on New Year’s Day had been a blasted whiteness, or a series of them, hemmed in by black trees like sheets snagged on barbed wire.

It seemed impossible that he’d chosen to live here, at a latitude where spring was a semantic variation on winter, in a grid whose rigid geometry only a Greek or a builder of prisons could love, in a city that made its own gravy when it rained. Taxis continued to stream toward the tunnel, like the damned toward a Boschian hellmouth. Screaming people staggered past below. Impossible, that he now footed the rent entire, two hundred bucks monthly for the privilege of pressing his cheek to the window and still not being able to see spectacular Midtown views. Impossible, that the cinderblock planter on the fire escape could ever have produced flowers.

Or wasn’t this city really the sum of every little selfishness, every ignorance, every act of laziness and mistrust and unkindness ever committed by anybody who lived there, as well as of everything she personally had loved?

Mercer Goodman, Jenny Nguyen and Richard Groskoph were my three favorite characters, and I might have liked to see more of each of them. I also felt that the book as a whole was quite baggy, and the six Interludes that separate the seven large sections, remarkable as they are (especially an entire fanzine, complete with photographs, comics and handwritten articles), weren’t strictly necessary.

It's definitely a chunkster. For the longest while it felt like I wasn't making a dent.

It’s definitely a chunkster. For the longest while it felt like I wasn’t making a dent.

Still, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Hallberg’s ambition, and on the sentence level the novel is always well wrought and surprising, with especially lovely last lines that are like a benediction. Though it’s mostly set in the 1970s, this never feels dated; in fact, I thought it thoroughly relevant for our time: “even now they’re writing over history, finding ways to tell you what you just saw doesn’t exist. The big, bad anarchic city, people looting, ooga-booga. Better to trust the developers and the cops.”

I won’t pretend that a 900+-page book isn’t a massive undertaking, and I have some trusted bloggers and Goodreads friends who gave up on this after 250 or 450 pages. So I can’t promise you that you’ll think it’s worth the effort, though for me it was. A modern twist on the Dickensian state-of-society novel, it’s one I’d recommend to fans of Jonathan Franzen, Bill Clegg and Jennifer Egan.

My rating: 4-star-rating

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

For several years in her mid-thirties, British author Olivia Laing lived in New York City. A relationship had recently fallen through and she was subletting an apartment from a friend. Whole days went by when she hardly left the flat, whiling away her time on social media and watching music videos on YouTube. Whenever she did go out, she felt cut off because of her accent and her unfamiliarity with American vernacular; she wished she could wear a Halloween mask all the time to achieve anonymity. How ironic, she thought, that in a city of millions she could be so utterly lonely.

Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee. … [L]oneliness inhibits empathy because it induces in its wake a kind of self-protective amnesia, so that when a person is no longer lonely they struggle to remember what the condition is like.

lonely cityWhereas alcoholic writers were the points of reference for her previous book, the superb The Trip to Echo Spring (2013), here outsider artists take center stage: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and the many lost to AIDS in the 1980s to 1990s. It’s a testament to Laing’s skill at interweaving biography, art criticism and memoir when I say that I knew next to nothing about any of these artists to start with and have little fondness for modern art but still found her book completely absorbing.

Several of the artists shared underlying reasons for loneliness: an abusive childhood, mental illness and/or sexuality perceived as aberrant. Edward Hopper might seem the most ‘normal’ of the artists profiled, but even he was bullied when he shot up to 6 feet at age 12; his wife Jo, doing some amateur psychoanalyzing, named it the root of his notorious taciturnity. His Nighthawks, with its “noxious pallid green” shades, perfectly illustrates the inescapability of “urban alienation,” Laing writes: when she saw it in person at the Whitney, she realized the diner has no door. (It’s a shame the book couldn’t accommodate a centerfold of color plates, but each chapter opens with a black-and-white photograph of its main subject.)

Andy Warhol was born Andrej Warhola to Slovakian immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1928. He was often tongue-tied and anxious, and used fashion and technology as ways of displacing attention. In 1968 he was shot in the torso by Valerie Solanas, the paranoid, sometimes-homeless author of SCUM Manifesto, and ever after had to wear surgical corsets. For Warhol and Wojnarowicz, art and sex were possible routes out of loneliness. As homosexuals, though, they could be restricted to sordid cruising grounds such as cinemas and piers. Like Klaus Nomi, a gay German electro-pop singer whose music Laing listened to obsessively, Wojnarowicz died of AIDS. Nomi was one of the first celebrities to succumb, in 1983. The epidemic only increased the general stigma against gay people. Even Warhol, as a lifelong hypochondriac, was leery about contact with AIDS patients. Through protest marches and artworks, Wojnarowicz exposed the scale of the tragedy and the lack of government concern.

In some ways Henry Darger is the oddest of the outsiders Laing features. He is also the only one not based in New York: he worked as a Chicago hospital janitor for nearly six decades; it was only when he was moved into a nursing home and the landlord cleared out his room that an astonishing cache of art and writing was discovered. Darger’s oeuvre included a 15,000-page work of fiction set in “the Realms of the Unreal” and paintings that veer towards sadism and pedophilia. Laing spent a week reading his unpublished memoir. With his distinctive, not-quite-coherent style and his affection for the asylum where he lived as an orphaned child, he reminded me of Royal Robertson, the schizophrenic artist whose work inspired Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz album, and the artist character in the movie Junebug (2005).

A few of the chapters are less focused because they split the time between several subjects. I also felt that a section on Josh Harris, Internet entrepreneur and early reality show streaming pioneer, pulled the spotlight away from outsider art. Although I can see, in theory, how his work is performance art reflecting on our lack of true connection in an age of social media and voyeurism, I still found this the least relevant part.

The American cover

The American cover

The book is best when Laing is able to pull all her threads together: her own seclusion – flitting between housing situations, finding dates through Craigslist and feeling trapped behind her laptop screen; her subjects’ troubled isolation; and the science behind loneliness. Like Korey Floyd does in The Loneliness Cure, Laing summarizes the physical symptoms and psychological effects associated with solitude. She dips into pediatrician D.W. Winnicott’s work on attachment and separation in children, and mentions Harry Harlow’s abhorrent rhesus monkey experiments in which babies were raised without physical contact.

The tone throughout is academic but not inaccessible. Ultimately I didn’t like this quite as much as The Trip to Echo Spring, but it’s still a remarkable piece of work, fusing social history, commentary on modern art, biographical observation and self-knowledge. The first chapter and the last five paragraphs, especially, are simply excellent. Your interest may wax and wane through the rest of the book, but I expect that, like me, you’ll willingly follow Laing as a tour guide into the peculiar, lonely crowdedness you find in a world city.

(See also Laing’s list of 10 Books about Loneliness, chosen for Publishers Weekly.)

With thanks to Canongate for sending a free copy.

My rating: 4 star rating