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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

There’s a passage well into Rachel Simon‘s The story of Beautiful Girl (Preface, 2011), May’s Book Group book, that had me beaming:

“Beautiful” was once the biggest word Lynnie had ever said. Her speech therapist, Andrea, had told her,  ‘After you master that, the sky’s the limit.’  She wasn’t quite right – Lynnie did not cross a language threshold with “beautiful.” […] But Andrea was right that once Lynnie achieved “beautiful”, she’d develop a new confidence.

It got to me.  Others in the Book Group were – rather unfairly I thought – expecting cynical ol’ me to be dismissive of this well-crafted novel.  I’ll admit seeing that cover I feared an acute attack of the American sentimentals – and if there’s a film made, any sloppy string section in evidence in the soundtrack will sully its integrity – but while the others complained of an over-reliance on coincidence for its narrative development, I was quite happy to accept a not unreasonable logic to the deeply satisfying happenstances, based on the people involved in the story being on the same football pitch as Lynnie’s thoughts on hope:

And Lynnie understood. There were two kinds of hope: the kind you couldn’t do anything about and the kind you could.  And even if the kind you could do something about wasn’t what you’d originally wanted, it was still worth doing. A rainy day is better than no day. A small happiness can make a big sadness less sad.

Not to mention the hope of the reader for things to turn out some sort of right (or in the case of the viewer, as in Peter Kay’s Car Share on telly last night, but I digress).

The story of Beautiful Girl starts one stormy night in 1968.  Or at least the book does, with Lynnie (young, white, aka Beautiful Girl) and Homan (tall African-American, profoundly deaf, aka Number Forty-Two, aka Buddy to Lynnie) on the run from ‘the School’ – a punitive dumping ground of an institution – with a new-born babe in arms.  Knocking desperately on Martha’s front door (she’s a widow, a retired teacher with a story of her own), they secrete the baby just before the School hunting party arrives; they obviously adore one another.  Homan escapes, and after a brief meaningful exchange of a look and a couple of words with Lynnie Martha solemnly chooses to care for the baby, who she names Julia.  Helped by a network of devoted ex-pupils, she goes on the run.

The story of Beautiful Girl is not just the story of ‘Beautiful Girl’ (which is how Homan remembers his friend).  The narrative develops in a series of episodes over the years to 2011, as we see what happens to Lynnie, back in the School, where she is helped by Kate – another of the good gals – who works there, and takes on a mission of her own.  Meanwhile Homan partakes of a desperate American survival odyssey – riding the rails, road tripping in a stolen vehicle with a young white man in a wheelchair, rescued by a hippy commune, helping in a Buddhist retreat – while Martha (now aka Matilda) goes on a journey of her own with Julia.

As I say, it got to me.  As the disturbing story arc and the individual lives broaden out, the narrative takes us through the terrible circumstances of Julia’s conception, the unravelling and demise of such prehistoric institutional care, and the development of the Self Advocacy Movement for people with disabilities.  Here’s a significant step in Lynnie’s liberation:

Five year’s into Lynnie’s stay – five tear’s after Lynnie’s intake IQ test classified her as an upper division imbecile and they stuck her in a cottage with other low grades – Kate noticed that Lynnie wasn’t just pushing the mop around when she did the janitorial work that was part of her treatment. She was making designs on the tile with the mop, the suds sparkling like iridescent crescents in the light. Kate told a psychologist, who ordered a new IQ test, and then Lynnie was promoted to the moron cottage.

Kate encourages her drawing talent and there’s a moment when they celebrate a small victory over the administration with a high-five out of nowhere that had me clenched-fist saluting – Yes! – and so it goes on.  For the good guys.  It’s not in the same class, but I’ll venture that it’s not outrageous to consider The story of Beautiful Girl as a close relative to  Ken Kesey’s One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, if without the belly laughs.  Lovely book, though, with an unflashy element of private theological musings, and a couple of neat but telling visual motifs running through.

As for the bad guys, we get to see some karma.  There’s a nicely nuanced visit near the end to find one of them, looking, I guess, for closure:

Lynnie gazed out of the windshield. The sky was gray and the houses broken. There was so much that was ugly in this world. Yet look. A blue jay was flying toward the house. It dove under the porch roof and tucked itself into the nest.

Musical interlude

This got me humming something I’ve been listening to a lot lately.  Mary Chapin Carpenter‘s recent album reworkings songs from her back catalogue.  Sometimes just the sky, the title track, is the only new song.  the title is a quote from Patti Smith.  I think it deserves a listen:

One last thought about The story of Beautiful Girl.  Homan – Number Forty-Two, the number assigned to him at the School, who originally saw printed text as bird tracks: “… how easily the School had made him disappear.”  Yup, that number again.  Coincidence?  Nod and a wink?  You never know.

YorkieFest 2018

A new, evening only format for YorkieFest this year, and a splendid evening’s music is was too, with an absorbing (listened to!) spoken word set from the Bard as bonus.  Mike Betteridge is excused his square on Cover Band Bingo because his solo Come together is so good; he can play the blues too.  Lovely set from singer-songwriter Dawn Iverson, making good use of her romantic history.  A touch of Nick drake (who else?) from Hazeyjane, and an uplifting African guitar driven set from Safari Boots.

One of MK’s finest bands for a long time now, the Zeroes, in their slimmed down unplugged incarnation proved it’s not just two generational folk families can sweetly sing together, and provided my current earworm.  Forgotten its title, but with a refrain of “Oh no / not me / I’m not sophisticated / I’m just a boy from Milton Keynes” in response to a mini-world tour of verses detailing the origins of his dates (“She was a girl from Ipanema” et al), inexplicable how the MK50 team rejected it last year when submitted for formal recognition as part of the city’s half-century celebration. Surely, is this not a case of the phenomenon of, escaping from the realms of literature, the unreliable narrator strikes again.

Well done, again, Pat Nicholson and the ‘Fest team.

 

 

 

 

 

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There’s a passage near the end of Wendy Jones‘ novel The thoughts and happenings of Wilfred Price, purveyor of superior funerals (Corsair, 2012) where one of the characters – Wilfred himself, no less – comes to the conclusion that his notion of reading the dictionary from cover to cover as a way of bettering himself is not helping:

The words he wanted were so simple, any child could speak them. They were simple words to write and spell. Big words, clever words – all those words beginning with A – were rather grand, too grand really, and unnecessary. When would he ever need the word avocado in Narberth?

How times change.  These days, the Guardian says (says Wikipedia), that Narberth, in Pembrokeshire, is “a gastronomic hub for west Wales”, lively and full of galleries and antique shops.  A decade or three ago we used to regularly stay nearby with family, and Narberth was a name often seen on road signs that we never thought to follow.  Back in 1924 (I do not doubt the novel), it was the sort of repressive place (“a town that pretended innocence and only allowed for innocence”) that had me dredging up words from the days when I was ‘reading’ (as they say on University Challenge) sociology – fine words like gemeinschaft and gessellschaft, that spectrum from community to society – and saying three cheers for modernity.

Is The thoughts and happenings of Wilfred Price, purveyor of superior funerals as bad as its title might suggest?  It was only keeping faith with the Book Group that kept me going.  Come the meeting it became apparent that mine was a minority report, though in discussion I had to acknowledge some credit where it was due – for the powerful dignity and integrity of the three main characters as things direly progress.  Wilfred gets himself into a situation “because of a yellow dress … with a low waistband and a square neck that was slightly too low, perhaps only by half an inch” and rather than keep mildly lecherous thought to himself blurts out a proposal of marriage to the wearer of said dress.  Yeah, right.  

The trouble is, it’s not sure what it wants to be.  It starts out as a vaguely comic candidate for the Sunday 9 o’clock Candleford slot on telly, with lots of cod Welshness (how I tired of the sing-song reference back to “his apprentice master, Mr Ogmore Auden”) and then turns into something really quite dark and bleak.  It ends like a box set pleading for a second series, or at the very least a spin-off following the one departing to that London.  But then I have to admit that I ended up caring about Grace, Wilf (as he’s never called) and young war widow Flora.  Other saving graces: odd incidentals about undertaking, photography, and beekeeping.  Even the cheerleaders at Book Group found those quotes on the cover of the paperback – “Gently glorious”, “Magical and bewitching” – missing the point.

The best of Adam Sharp

Graeme Simsion‘s The best of Adam Sharp (Michael Joseph, 2016) is a midlife crisis/great lost love novel.  He, Adam, is a successful database architect, who manages to fit in three pub quizzes a week in Norwich, married to a software developer whose start-up is being bought up for big bucks on condition she moves to the States, and she’s not bothered if he comes or not – his choice.  She, Angelina, is a lawyer, a Commissioner for Equalities in Australia, married to Charlie, an older ‘deal-maker’.  They‘d first met 22 years ago when he was 26, working to a contract in Oz and playing the piano in a bar (“not a pub, a bar” he insists) in the evenings, and she was young and famous, one of the leads in a TV cop-soap, in an unhappy marriage; he leaves when the job demands he move to another place and they both get on with their lives.

Out of the blue he gets an email, just saying ‘Hi.’  What follows is a tale, narrated by the Adam of the title, of jealousy and infidelity, trust-testing and sex games, coming to a climax (if you’ll excuse the expression) in a French Villa where Angelina and Charlie are staying, and have invited Adam.  There are various cliffhangers, comings and goings and changes of mind; I’m not giving anything away.  It has its moments and there are some decent scenes, along with consideration of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, all sorts of specific wine nonsense, the Kübler-Ross grief model, and BATNA, or ‘Best alternative to a negotiated settlement’, a concept from negotiation theory; this is a fine romance.

The paperback cover, and a move to tape cassette!

To tell the truth I only carried on with it from early on (“I was back home in Norwich, reading up on Pete Best, the Beatles’ forgotten first drummer, when the email popped up …” ) to keep faith with my Kinks in Literature feature here on Lillabullero.  I knew there was a reference in there somewhere because the author has helpfully supplied a 2½ page ‘Playlist’ of what was probably his dad’s record collection, and Lola features (it’s a pretty good sequence about Adam learning to play the piano, which I’ll expand on elsewhere).  Indeed, our narrator can’t stop using music (and the odd book, like Love in a time of cholera) as metaphor, simile and sieve through which to view his life: “If my life prior to 15 February 2012 had been a song, it might have been Hey Jude … ” (not a bad musical analysis, as it happens).  But he also courts obscurities that had me hitting Google furiously: “I sang Walking in Memphis and found I was enjoying myself … I did the Dylan-Springs obscurity Walk out in the rain and got another cheer for the line about sore feet”.  Nope, not the Boss, but Helen Springs; Dylan never recorded it, Eric Clapton did a maudlin version of it, but this, from the Del McCoury Band, is a pretty joyful take that I feel the urge to share:

Then there’s this:

      Long ago, I listened to Billie Holiday singing Summertime – not once but many times – and I thought it was as close to a perfect rendition as could be imagined: Lady Day laying out the melody in all its languid easy-living elegance, the restraint of her delivery only accentuating the feeling behind it.

      Years later, I listened to Janis Joplin’s live performance. It’s a screaming primal blues, the melody no more than a point of departure, but still, unmistakably, the same song. My familiarity with Billie Holiday’s version only made Joplin’s reinterpretation more powerful and in turn opened my mind to nuances I had missed in the original. Having experienced both versions, I knew the song in a way I could never have if I had heard only one.

      Making love to Angelina felt different and familiar at the same time.

Never been a great Joplin fan, and personally I think she murders it.  I have always had a lot of time for Billy Stewart‘s funkily energetic assault on the song though:

But I indulge myself.  Time to move on.

Behind her eyes

I’m not going to say much about Sarah Pinborough‘s highly successful Behind her eyes (HarperCollins, 2017) because I could say too much and give the game away.  It’s a page turner all right.  There are plenty of twists on the way – not least in the reader’s perception of who the good guys are – but the shift at the end is dazzling in its audacity.  Mind-blowing is a phrase not much-used these days …

Single mother Louise has a drunken snog with David, a married bloke, the first bloke she’s fancied in ages.  Goes to work next day only to discover he’s her new boss; ok, I’ll give away that an affair ensues.  Louise also bumps into and befriends his seemingly vulnerable wife, Claire; they become new BFs, with Louise being drawn into her problems.  Seems neither Claire or David know that Louise knows the other, and she aint telling (and she’s the decent one).  He’s a psychiatrist and there’s a big, slowly revealed – and duly revised – back story to the marriage, with its probably criminal roots, one way or another, in a fatal fire at her parents’ country house when they were much younger.

In a library it has to be shelved in Crime fiction, but to say any more might give too much away; I will say psychological thriller as sub-genre along the way.  There’s a necessary suspension of belief involved, but I was so skillfully drawn in.  It’s crisply written, with the narrative mainly shared between Louise and Claire, with ‘Then’, ‘Later’, and ‘Now’ passages to help it along.  The final reveal … Wow!  Good job …

A meal and a show in that London

Family-gifted celebratory treats: a mixed experience.

Apparently over 7 million theatregoers have already seen The woman in black in the West End over the last 28 ‘terrifying’ years.  Which may explain why we seemed to be the oldest couple in the difficult to find tucked away Fortune Theatre – a cramped trip back into the past in itself – on a Saturday night.  Indeed, I thought we’d seen it before in MK (wasn’t our choice) but it soon became apparent I was mistaken.  Wasn’t convinced by the framing mechanism for the narrative – worried man seeks actor to help up his presentation skills in telling his terrible tale.  It’s a two-hander and as such a feat for the actors, but I wasn’t really drawn in.

Of course there’s always a problem with ghost stories if you don’t believe in ghosts, and I found the effects were either corny – not easy to do effectively, I’d guess, in such an old theatre – or relied more on volume and surprise than anything else for their shock value.  Most chilling moment – and chilling it was, I’ll grant – was right at the end, when it became apparent that the curse had not been lifted.

Earlier, a meal in a ££££-er on TripAdvisor, at Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden (website).  That was a real treat.  We had the 5-course vegetarian taster menu; the chefs come out and tell you what’s going on the plates, of which there was a splendid variety of shapes and materials.  The place was buzzing but the service was right on the ball.  Most interesting tastes that have hit this palate in a long time, only challenged years past by a couple of specialist veggie gaffs in Brighton and Lyme Regis.

 

 

 

 

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Suspicious – as I think it is reasonable to be – about any odd-shaped novel, I approached Magnus MillsThe Forensic Records Society (Bloomsbury, 2017) with some trepidation.  It’s a neat piece of book design: square, referencing the 45 rpm vinyl singles of old, sporting printed boards and a dust jacket with a hole revealing the disc’s label, and  shaved at the top to show the edge of the disc printed on the cover; the hole in the middle has not been bored through the body of the book.  Pictured here too is the B-side of the boards, a white label demo that plays a part in the narrative.

It starts with a discussion between James and our unnamed narrator (neither of whom has any back story) about who is saying what in the run-off grooves of an unnamed single, though as ‘Keith’ and ‘Roger’ are named it’s a fair guess they are listening to something by The Who.  It is in fact Happy Jack, though I only know this because it was mentioned in one of the reviews I resorted to reading in an attempt to see if anyone else had had problems making any sense of the ending, but later for that.  So you can see from early on there might be a rather specific demographic being aimed at here.

Nobody listens. Not properly anyway. Not like we do’” says James, who shifts into activist mode: “‘We could form a society for the express purpose of listening to records closely and in detail. Forensically if you like, without any interruption or distraction.'”  And so The Forensic Record Society is born.  They put up a poster in their local, where they will meet in a backroom: “All welcome: bring three records of your choice” to be played in strict rotation; “Obviously there will be no comments or judgement of other people’s taste. We’ll be here simply to listen.”

The first record to be played is The Universal:

        While it was playing both James and Chris stared solemnly at the revolving disc. Neither showed any reaction to the barking dog which accompanied the opening bars, the sudden appearance of electric guitars in the middle section, nor the jokey trombone at the end. They just sat listening in reverential awe. […]         Finally Chris broke the silence.
‘That’s the sea in the trees in the morning.’ It was all he said, but we knew exactly what he meant.

Well, yes, as it happens I do too.  Point well made.  Pity the poor reader who is not aware this is one of the Small Faces’ small masterpieces, though.  Chris’s comment at the end becomes an issue as the Society grows, but the point I need to make here is that throughout the 182 entertaining pages of the book, and the playing of many records ranging from over at least four decades of music, not a single group or artist is named, which can be confusing when a song like Promised land is mentioned.  There were plenty that had me puzzled and keenly Googling.  (I fear I may be incriminating myself in some way here).  But thinking about that, I’d wager that – contradictorily – a certain something would go missing from the text if the attributions were there.  Even though most of the time the record choices are not significant to the narrative, younger readers might struggle, and those without much interest in popular music will probably just not bother.

Things progress: “We sat around the table in our various attitudes (serene, solemn, mesmerised and so forth) and listened … ” (which combination becomes rather a good standing joke).  A latecomer (Phillip, a man in the long, leather coat “with gigantic lapels“) is spurned and sets up a rival organisation – The Confessional Records Society.  James’s puritanical approach becomes problematic, and there is unrest.  There is a crisis when a new member brings along a prog-rock album to the club where it was assumed the single was king; like all good dictators, James gets his sidekick to deal with it.  “We’d started out with such high ideals” bemoans the faithful narrator, “yet within a few months we’d witnessed bickering, desertion, subterfuge and rivalry”. There are splinter groups and a coup – The Perceptive Records Society (comments allowed, though not many are actually made), then the New Forensic Records Society.  The Confessional Records Society moves out of the pub and balloons into an evangelical (as in money-making) charismatic movement, with t-shirts and mass confessions.

What we have here is a nicely worked, broader allegory, delivered with a touch of dry psychological insight:

Was it really beyond human capacity, I pondered, to create a society which didn’t ultimately disintegrate through internal strife? Or collapse under the weight of its own laws? Or suffer damaging rivalries with other societies? Because there was no question that all these fates awaited us if we carried on as we were.

I got hold of The Forensics Records Society because a mate had likened it to The Detectorists, Mackenzie Crook’s gentle and brilliantly unhurried look at English blokedom hobbyists.  It can’t quite manage the charm, but there is plenty of humour to be had from the situation; there are some delightful set pieces.

And then there are the women, principally barmaid Alice, a musician, singer-songwriter of talent, whose demo is featured on the back cover of the book, the listening to of which becomes something of a MacGuffin.  Our narrator feels that Alice, who has meanwhile paired up with James, has declared war on him: “‘I don’t know what you’re doing here,’ she said. ‘You don’t even like music.’”  Ouch. “Well the truth is she thinks we’re all emotionally retarded,” vouchsafes James.  She makes a dramatic exit when the disc is finally played.

The New Forensic Records Society, a looser set-up that the originators deign to visit, even has a couple of women members.  Someone has brought along Shipbuilding:

        ‘OK,’ he [Dave] said. ‘Are there any comments or judgements?’
‘Well it’s alright to listen to,’ remarked the woman sitting opposite me, ‘but you can’t really dance to it, can you?’

This is both funny in context (harking back to Janis or whatever her name was on that bloody ’60s TV programme – not Juke Box Jury, the other one) but also, after a brief moment’s thought, deeply condescending – a cheap laugh, which nevertheless soon has its narrative uses.  She it is, too, who gets our Guinness drinking narrator drunk, waking up in a strange bed to deliver the mystifying con(if you can call it one)clusion.  But later for that.

On the other hand, there are some delicious celebrations of blokedomisms of the musical kind.  Gals, don’t you just love us?:

  • From our narrator, the man with no name: “When I got home my first job was to put the evening’s choice of record back in its proper place (my record collection was filed in strict alphabetical order).”  For me, as a librarian, this is not enough.  It’s a complicated business – I need to know.  I presume he does it by artist but … does he use letter-by-letter or word-by-word?  Just for starters.
  • Then there are James’s side projects.  Like, “About a month ago I decided to play my entire collection in strict alphabetical order (but see above); and, later, “I’m playing all my records with bracketed titles”.  “Sounds like an absorbing pastime”,’ I remarked.
  • And his compadre’s:  “My plan was to play all my records that faded in and out. In the event it took me longer to find them than to play them.” 
  • And in said compadre’s Alice-induced moment of doubt: “I finally resorted to counting and playing all the records in my collection by women performers. The process took me most of the day, and the statistics were inconclusive.
  • Or Mike – “a man with spiky hair” – in search of his nirvana, announcing: ‘The perfect pop song is precisely three minutes in length.”  Spoiler alert: he finds it twice: Another girl, another planet by The Only Ones, plus one I’m not revealing.  He’s wrong, of course, about those 3 minutes, which is far too long.
  • Two men called Andrew achieve possibly the most obscure accolade: “‘Watch out,’ murmured Barry. ‘Here come Pressed Rat and Warthog.’”  I had to dredge the memory banks  hard, and then double-check.  Yes, it was a single: b-side of Anyone for tennis.

As you might have gleaned there’s a broad range of decent music cited – rock, ska, reggae, pop, folk, soul – and nothing that made me wince; MacArthur Park makes an appearance for laughs.  There’s no specific historical timeframe – emails exist, CDs, cassettes and digital downloads get no mention – though I doubted a couple of later songs ever made it to 45 rpm (The Killers?).  But hey, it’s an allegory.  My heart soared when one of my all-time favourite Atlantic soul obscurities got played.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Rex Garvin & the Mighty CraversSock it to ’em JB:

A double homage to James Bond and the hardest working man in show business, Mr. James Brown.  I had this once on single, and whoever’s got it, I’d like it back!

And for me, Looking for Lewis and Clark by The Long Ryders will never fail to excite:

Spoiler alert

Ah yes, and the small matter of how it ends.  Which has baffled all the reviewers I’ve reviewed.  If this is allegory, what on earth does that ending mean?  The triumph of dance music?  The end of civilisation in a wild splurge of hedonism?  The narrator sure as hell doesn’t know; he just keeps us hanging on.  Do these words, coming to him – waking confused in a strange bed – from the room next door, mean anything to anyone?  Are they a quote from some outro?  Zappa?:

Yeah, yeah … more, more … nice … play another song … yeah maybe … hey, what’s happening later on? … what’s happening? … yeah beautiful … yeah, come on baby … I got it … yeah, outasight, man …”  [there’s more like this]

I’d quite like to know.

Click here for a link to the Kinks in Literature page for The Forensic Records Society.

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March’s Book Group book had the makings of an interesting meeting:

  • The book: a first person narrative of a 60-year old widow of three months impulse flight from Hampstead to the Norfolk coast, written by a man who was 50 at the time it was published
  • The Group: women of an average age a few years greater than that of the book’s narrator, and a token male (me), contributing nothing in years to lower that average.  I say ‘token male’ because I quite like the rhetorical flourish; no quotas here.

So how did Mick Jackson‘s telling of The widow’s tale (Faber, 2010) fare in the matter of gender impersonation?  There was no consensus: one of us thought he was pretty convincing, was carried along, another said No, she never stopped thinking it was written by a man, but wasn’t that bothered; others felt he’d made a decent fist of it while being gently jolted out of their reading stride by occasional lapses (I should probably have asked for specific instances); I, of course, on the most basic of levels, could offer nothing – what would I know? – but it felt ok, I never thought I was not reading her journal, rather than a construction; I liked her.

The sudden death of husband of 40 years and she’s all over the place.  Her journal starts when one day, three months into widowhood, she just gets in his Jaguar and finds herself on the M11: “When I ran out of the house I don’t think I had any real idea where I was going“.  Once she gets to where she finds she’s going her plan was “to book myself into the hotel, for nostalgia’s sake” but she rents a small cottage instead; seeking something other than diversion, she cuts the TV aerial cable.  It becomes apparent this nostalgia is not for her late husband’s sake, though mention of an affair occurs only two-fifths of the way in; she torments herself in that regard with “how incredibly happy I once was“; it becomes a growing obsession that builds to an irrational act that ends (sorry, rather predictably) in a keenly felt self-humiliation.  She comes out of it in the end: “No angelic chorus“, but she’s had a crucial moment.

The journal – “Anyway, that’s quite enough writing (and drinking) for one day. I’m off to my (widow’s) bed” – is her way of keeping on top of things while she has a breakdown of sorts.  She maintains a nice line in self-deprecation keeping company with the emotional turmoil, insecurities,  blankness and migraines.  Here she is considering first, widowhood, and then, the end of the affair:

One of the surprises, re the sudden onset of widowhood […]  With John gone, life is now one endless succession of options, none of which has to be presented to the household committee before being acted upon. The sudden sense of liberty … can be quite bewildering.

I was informed that I really was a lovely woman – as if it might be something I’d consider adding to my CV when applying for any future extra-marital shenanigans.

Hans Holbein’s Christina of Denmark with her “steady gaze”. Our heroine likes it a lot; doesn’t do much for me.

Of course I’m an utter wreck …”  She spends her days walking, tramping out on the salt marshes (“I’m like a bloody sentry, obsessively patrolling my own little stretch of coastline“), doing crosswords in the pub (supping Woodforde’s Wherry – an excellent choice), not buying a book of Holbein prints in a bookshop (and regretting it), recalling the excitement of illicit phone calls made from phone boxes, and thinking back over episodes of stillness in her life (a spell in a convent retreat, life modelling, visiting Rome).  Remembering too (though not much) the early years of her settled marriage (fancifully evoking Dylan Thomas and Caitlin’s quarrels in passing).  She’s worried that without the check of domesticity she’ll become eccentric: “Not eccentric as in quaint and charming. Eccentric, as in just plain weird“.  As her time in the cottage unfolds, the journal  wanders hither and thither while still building nicely.

The resolution, the moment of revelation when it comes, is not religious, though she has given that a try: walking to a local church, visiting the shrine at Walsingham – and like me, been unimpressed by its glitter – but being drawn back there to witness the slipper chapel pilgrims and their shoeless perambulation of the stations of the cross, which stays with her as a fancy:

I’m considering buying a map of Britain, and marking on it all the places that have significance for me. […] My own personal stations. I could put a few weeks aside and walk them barefoot – to honour them.

Back in the Book Group a counsellor with a lot of experience with women in similar circumstances, said she would not hesitate to recommend A widow’s tale to those seeking her help.  Showing those dealing with the confusions of sudden bereavement: You’re not alone.  Pretty high praise, I’d say.

 

 

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A place called Winter

Patrick Gale‘s A place called Winter (Tinder, 2015) kicks off with a detailed description of the brutal ‘treatment’ meted out to unresponsive patients in a psychiatric hospital in Canada.  It then moves, as does protagonist Harry Cane, to Bethel, a progressive therapeutic community, where we eventually discover how he got to be there.  It’s a captivating tale of flight from prosperous Edwardian London to being part of the state-sponsored settlement of the Canadian prairies, in the early twentieth century: they gave you land to work; it became yours if you made a go of it.

Once our hero gets to Canada (and once you get over his sharing a name with the Tottenham Hotspur and England striker Harry Kane, who can’t stop scoring goals at the moment), so vivid and engrossing are the descriptions of his physical travails, his surroundings and his developing friendships – the sheer narrative power, the sense of achievement and fulfillment – that I completely lost track of the book’s structure, forgot about those painful opening pages and its therapeutic context.  Until the spectre of the Great War inevitably loomed and I thought: Oh please, not another literary tour of the trenches (Canada was part of the Empire, remember) and mental collapse.  But no, we are dealing here with violent trauma of a more directly personal and dramatic nature; not that the War doesn’t touch others who matter to him.  And when the narrative does return to Bethel, to almost the present, it gets really interesting.

There is so much going on in A place called Winter.  Why does Harry have to go to Canada?  To shield his relatives from shame and scandal.  I knew Patrick Gale had achieved something special here, but couldn’t nail it, so I resorted – something I rarely do in these pieces – to investigating what others had to say.  I didn’t have to look any further than an interview the author had given Max Lui for the Independent:

The challenge was to inhabit a homosexual life when there are no words to describe any of the things the character feels or does.

He succeeds.  And never mind sexuality, Harry’s whole life is one big series of discoveries.  The materially comfortable existence he leaves behind in London is a far cry from the lonely rigours of taming the wilderness in a very cold place.

As I say, so much going on.  In the two respectable English families that become enjoined in before the crisis – two brothers from the one marrying sisters in the other – there is potential to populate a decent novel of their own.  Then there’s the passage to Canada – a fascinating slice of social history – and the first meeting with one Troels Munck, a malevolent fixer, who keeps turning up again later as a classic Western bad guy: Evil like in a fairytale. But fascinating too“, says Gale in a piece at the back of the paperback edition I read.  

He’s taken on by a Danish family in Moose Jaw for a harsh apprentice year, learning the farming ropes, before he gets his own land: “The talk of wages, the whole business of being, for the first time in his life, employed, was so novel as to feel virtually meaningless.”  Talk about a new life.  Furthermore: “It was another mercy that the Jorgensens neither gave nor expected anything from him socially; he was an unregarded nothing“.  Something good comes out of the year though as relations warm.  The changes mapped reminded me of an Alice Munro story.

And then there’s the gruelling work establishing his own homestead, building a house, getting the land into shape to farm, near a place called Winter.  The winters – the cold, the snow – are crippling.  His developing relationships with sister and brother neighbours, Petra and Paul Slaymaker – Paul had had some “trouble in Toronto” – are the emotional core of the novel.  I don’t think I want to be any more specific than that; it’ll give too much away.  Dramatic events unfold involving Troels Munck.  There is a crisis and Harry has a breakdown, which takes us back to the horrendous opening chapter.

The plight of the peoples of the First Nations – Canada’s North American Indians – had been touched on earlier, but at therapeutic community at Bethel the book shifts into another gear.  In fascinating passages that reminded me of (but surpassed) the movie Little Big Man, Harry learns from fellow patient Little Bear, a Cree Indian: “You are a two-souls, Harry“:

She said something, in Plains Cree presumably, so softly he couldn’t quite catch it, but it sounded like ayarkwoo. ‘Translation is impossible, since it could mean either both man and woman or neither man nor woman. Some of us call it two-souls. You are a two-souls, Harry.’

It’s a blessing and a curse. […] You choose the basket willow over the bow, but there’s no rule to say you can’t use both,” he elaborates elsewhere.  Ultimately Little Bear is a tragic figure, but he is crucial to Harry’s recovery.  In the Cree Nation he was valued for what he was:

        You have to understand, as a two-souls I had a special position. I was being taught mysteries, things ordinary boys would never learn.’  […]
        ‘I was special and my father was proud of me. But to the missionaries I was an evil influence. I was fourteen, nearly fully grown, but to them I was an evil child. They cut my hair short and the evil they saw in me was beaten out day after day.’
        ‘Did you fight?’
        ‘No. I was always quiet and good and a swift learner. And their Jesus was so kind, kinder than some of our spirits. He reached out to me and still hasn’t let me go. For a meek, mild dead man, he has a tenacious grip.’

Harry returns to pick up the pieces in Winter.  There are important plotlines I’ve barely touched upon, but it all seems hopeful (though that’s just my reading – it’s left open-ended).

A place called Winter  was January’s Book Group book and – rare event – there were no dissenting voices as to what a fine piece of work it was.  It is an incredibly powerful piece of writing, with distressing and heart-breaking happenings aplenty.  The prose can sing but is never flashy, never fussy, never proselytising.  There is a vivid sense of people in a landscape, of energy being expended; when the threshing team comes to harvest Harry’s and the Slaymakers’ fields in Chapter 25, reading felt like being in a big widescreen cinema – Terrence Malick’s Days of heaven came to mind.

Yet for all the heaviness, A place called Winter can still amuse.  There is a nice little bit of banter about books and individual’s reading tastes in the snowed-up winters, and Gale interjects the odd flourish that tellingly tickles, like these that I’ll leave you with.  The first example is from Harry’s courting days, the last his first meal at Bethel (or was it at the Jorgenson’s – sorry):

They reached a wrought-iron bench in the shifting golden shade of a weeping willow, which seemed like a destination, so they sat. (p31)

Musical comedies were Harry’s idea of hell. He disliked their forced sentiment and cheeriness, their wildly improbable plots […] and the tension induced in him by knowing that at any moment a character would burst into song. (p61)

Lunch was a fairly punitive cheese and parsnip tart with beans and boiled potatoes. (p116)

Splendid stuff all round.

 

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The topics under consideration are:

  1. Is it necessary to like the characters, or enough of them, in a novel – and I’ll grant just the one is enough – to fully appreciate it?  True: depends how you define ‘appreciate’, but I’m dodging that one except to say that my main enjoyment of literature come from, um, satisfaction in the broadest of senses, rather than from being a literary critic (which I am not).
  2. How stands the state of play for the delineation and punctuation of human speech in the contemporary novel?
  3. Why does it feel like Irish writers sweep the board these days last century for sheer exhilaration?

And here come the books:

Book the First

Tessa Hadley‘s The past (2015), December’s Book Group book, occasioned a split between those who couldn’t warm particularly to any of the middle-aged siblings taking their annual time out together in an old house in the middle of nowhere with family connections, and those who thought that didn’t matter in the matter of how well crafted a novel it was.  I was in the former camp and agreed with the woman of Irish origin who said the whole thing was “too English” – and middle class southerner English to boot.  I thought the arch of the plot was a bit contrived too, though with the right casting it would make great telly.  It has its moments, mind; I’m not dismissing it completely out of hand.

To tell the truth I was struggling from the first paragraph, with its “The noise of their taxi receding, like an insect burrowing between the hills, was the only sound at first in the still afternoon …”  Is it just me, or are you too trying to imagine what the noise of an insect burrowing between hills could be?  Too many similes throughout was my impression.

Anyway, three sisters: Alice, failed actress, who for some reason has brought her ex-lover’s student son along with her; Harriet, ex-radical and worthy, about to discover something about herself; Fran, youngest, teacher and mum – her two weird kids in tandem, but not their father, a musician (what kind? we’re not told) who has ‘forgotten’ all about this annual pilgrimage and has gigs booked.  One brother, an academic philosopher with a media presence talking about cinema, on his third wife, a stunning Argentinian woman who some think has past links with a brutal dictatorship, who is meeting the sisters for the first time, along with his teenage daughter from a previous marriage.  Brother pisses off early, third wife and daughter stick around (yay! teenage sub-plot!).  Bitching, moaning, explorations etc etc and another sub-plot I’ll not go into.  You can see why Fran’s musician husband has ‘memory’ problems.

There’s a time travel middle section where we see Jill and Tom, their mother and father of the sisters and brother (or at least the father of the two born by then – they’re about to split up) visiting her parents (father, Grantham, a forbiddingly remote vicar-poet) in 1968.  Tom is more interested in what’s going on in the streets of Paris and is obviously a waster.  Indeed, the male sex are not well-represented in the pages of this book.  Why, Alice’s ex’s son can even – tempting intertextual fate – come up with:

Alice found Kasim slouching on the window seat on the landing, blankly engaged in nothing. She tried to lend him a novel to pass the time but he gloomily said he didn’t see the point of fiction. – I don’t see what it’s for. Why would you put out any intellectual effort, understanding something that wasn’t true?

But, re-focussing on our initial questions.  What is it about Irish writers?  Maybe that they would not beguile us – I know, it’s a character, but – with something like this one of Alice’s meditations:

She thought she saw a skylark soar up out of the field, streaming with song, balancing on its invisible jet of air – but as soon as she sat up on her elbows she doubted her identification. The bird was just a dot in the sky, too far off to be certain. Surely the skylarks had gone long ago from this part of the country? Everything was in decline. What a compromised generation theirs was, she thought. Materially they had so much, and yet they were haunted by this sensation of existing in an aftermath, after the best had passed.

As far as the punctuation of speech goes, however, Tessa Hadley goes Irish and adopts the James Joycean hyphen – as per A portrait of the artist as a young man – as the speech delineator, and goes further, even, in not employing a new paragraph every time, which I find refreshing.  This little example (from the 1968 section) also bears witness to a humour that I may not have hinted at so far:

‌   – We don’t eat eggs.
   Roland broke the news solemnly.
   – Oh god, said Jill. – I really began to think we’d never get here, that we’d just have to sleep under a hedge or something.  And you’re worrying about a little thing like eggs.
   – You shouldn’t say god, said Hattie. – Grandfather doesn’t like it.
   – He isn’t here, he’s visiting the sick.
   – Thank god for the sick, said Jill. – We can swear until he comes back.

But before we leave The past, one last quotation (again from the 1968 interlude) that more than one of the Group had made a note of (we are not a young group):

Carefully, Sophy ate a cold mouthful of cabbage. She loved poems but easily forgot them, and she only half-listened to her husband’s sermons anyway. This wasn’t exactly because she wasn’t interested. But part of the oddity of marriage, she thought, was in how unwise it was to attend too intently to the other person. This was the opposite to what she had naively imagined, as a girl. To the unmarried, it seemed that a couple must be intimately, perpetually exposed to each other – but actually, that wasn’t bearable. In order for love to survive, you had to close yourself off to a certain extent.

Book the Second

No marriage hints to be had Kevin Barry‘s Beatlebone (Canongate, 2015).  Here’s a sample of how speech is handled, though.  Cornelius, taxi driver and self-appointed guide,  guardian and local mentor of a fictional John Lennon in his fictional journey across Ireland in 1978, out to the island of Dorinish off the Atlantic coast that he bought when he was a Beatle.  They’re hungry so Cornelius fixes a meal with what he got: black pudding.  Which Lennon, so hungry, eats despite being a veggie:

He eats the food.  The spiciness, the mealiness, the animal waft – it’s all there in the history of his mouth, and he is near to fucking tears again.  The tea is strong and sweet and tastes of Liverpool.

Would you believe, John, that my father lived in this house till he was eighty-seven years of age?

How’d you get to be eighty-seven up a wet hill in Mayo?

He neither drank nor smoked.

I’m packing away all that myself.

I drink, John.  I smoke.  And I tup women.

Oh?

When I get the chance.

Yup, just like that.  Not even a dash, let alone speech marks, and no indentations, and a line space between each utterance.  Cynics might say it ups the page count considerably, but I’d say it adds space and resonance to the situation, not the least being Lennon’s struggle to make sense of both what is happening to him, and the rural Irish.  Obviously it’s not going to work universally, but it makes a change.  Elsewhere in Beatlebone Barry adopts a playscript formula, with directions.

On the Irish question posed at the beginning of this post – true, this is not the most scintillating of dialogues – that “wet hill” in Mayo is of relevance.  Last week I was lucky enough to see a performance by Roger McGough (of which more in a later post), in which included a poetic homage to Seamus Heaney, with a kick in the coda to the effect that English poets might be a tad jealous, if not resentful, of the peat bogs etc. available to Heaney on his prize-strewn doorstep.  You might say ‘The grass is always greener’, but then, with Eire, it actually is.  That and the music of the southern accent.  I just find Irish writers more gracious, more generous, more inventive, funnier and more enervating, even when wallowing in misery.  Have I said Kevin Barry is Irish?

Hardback cover

And speaking of misery, the fictional Lennon just wants to get to his exposed island and be left alone to scream – remember Janov’s Primal scream? – for days.  He has songwriter’s block, feels that might free the creative juices.  It becomes a long and arduous journey across Ireland and then out to the island.  I’m not saying much about what happens on the island.  They stay with a scary failing therapeutic community on the way, they have a night in the pub; Lennon thinks a lot about his past throughout (“a dozen years he’s been trying to outrun the fucking sitars”).

Suddenly, with Part Six, in a shocking (not in a bad way)intrusion, Kevin Barry tells of visiting the Dakota Street building in New York, and partaking of the same journey out to Dorinish for himself, of his situation when writing the book, filling in the factual details of Lennon’s purchase of the island, his donating its use to a bunch of hippies for an experiment in communal living, and giving background to life in the west of Ireland in the twentieth century.  Of his Lennon homework Barry says:

Fictional and biographical treatments of John Lennon have tended either towards hagiography or character assassination, and I felt the wisest practice was not to do any traditional research among the texts.

So he listened to that emotionally draining Plastic Ono Band album (A working class hero et al) and watched loads of post-Beatles interviews on YouTube.  What he comes up with sounds pretty good to me.  He doesn’t indulge too much in dropping lyric references into the text though the number 9 is a bit of a theme; how many chapters? yup! – but when he does, ouch: “He is so tired. He hasn’t slept a wink. He has tried so hard this long while to be at home in the world. Baking the bread. Swinging in a papoose the baby. Cozy-as-the-fucking-womb stuff. Captain fucking Domestic.

The novel’s narrative does not, of course, follow the trajectory of Lennon’s real life, though his early memories seem reasonable.  The journey never happened and the album he was working on before he was assassinated is very different to The great lost Beatlebone tape, the recording of which is reported in Part Eight.  Does this whet your appetite? :

JOHN    I mean, have you heard what Scott Walker’s been up to? With his plinkety fucking plink plonk?

CHARLIE    Avant garde, John. Is what it is.

JOHN    My peasant arse. This is going to make Scott Walker sound like the Mamas and the fucking Papas.

Beatlebone is not the easiest or most comfortable of reads.  I had a couple of false starts.  But once in it is relentless, and, gruelling as it is in parts, it also flies, and it sings, and thinks, and it can be very funny.

Lest we forget, this is where Kevin Barry nicked his title from:

Smaller because she’s already had a blog post all of her own not long ago, but she’s Irish and also has something to contribute in the matter of conversation.

Book the Third

What it says in the caption (see Operant discursive rehearsals ).  Absorbing novel from an Irish twenty something.  What she does with conversation is ignore speech marks and dashes altogether, like Barry, but keeping the normal line spacing.  Keeps things moving nicely and no – what I’m beginning to see as visual impediments – speech marks.  Had no problems with what was or wasn’t said.  This is undoubtedly a conversation:

I’m not sure what my role would be in that relationship, I said.
You could write her love sonnets, said Evelyn.
Melissa grinned. Don’t underestimate the effect of youth and beauty, she said.
That sounds like a recipe for disastrous unhappiness, I said.
You’re twenty one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.
I’m working on it, I said.

Speech marks

I was going to put another book in here with conventional speech punctuation, but:

  1. I’ve run out of steam
  2. This is way too long and rambling already
  3. And it’s a great book, deserves more, which it might well get in a while
  4. And it’s not written by an Irishman

‘British publishers of late seem to favour the single inverted commas,’ said Lillabullero.
“But we still use the old double a lot,” said an American, passing by, on the bookshelves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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So much going on in Sally Rooney‘s Conversations with friends (Faber, 2017), where to begin?  How about with the brilliant piece of book design that is the endpapers of the hardback edition (click on the pic for an enlargement)?  They give a colourful taste, a decent aperitif, of what lurks inside:

I only had access to a library copy, so here’s what’s hidden under the label: I just don’t think I would enjoy being someone’s second choice / You can love more than one person / That’s arguable.  And the Yeats thing (top right), to remove any ambiguity, it finishes with: No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy.  As someone who this holiday season just past revisited a home video recorded on the occasion of his 40th birthday which included a section of himself reading to camera Yeats’ The second coming, I’m taking that with a pinch of salt.  After all, Frances, our narrator, and her mate Bobbi are not your average third year Dublin university students.  Conversations with friends fizzes with stuff like that.  Here she is at the start of that bad date, trying to be ‘real’ and ‘normal’:

 I’ve never worked hard at anything, I said.
That must be why you study English.
Then he said that he was just joking, and actually he had won his school’s gold medal for composition. I love poetry, he said. I love Yeats.
Yeah, I said. If there’s one thing you can say for fascism, it had some good poets.
He didn’t have anything else to say about poetry after that.

(I’ll admit I did not know W.B. had briefly flirted with fascism, though I do now that I’ve looked it up: the Irish fascists had blueshirts.)

One of the reviews quoted on the back cover of Conversations with friends invokes Salinger’s Catcher in the rye and I can see that, except that Holden Caulfield was only 16 going on 17, and these are very different rites of passage for very different times; for starters, sharp as he was, he was in no position to namedrop French postmodern cultural theorists.  In this passage Frances has been to the theatre but has not been able to believe in the performance, regardless of the quality of the acting:

I could see a care label bunched inside the seam of the slip she was wearing, which destroyed the effect of reality for me, although the slip and its care label were undoubtedly themselves real. I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, although I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed.

At this point I’d also like to introduce Adrian Mole into the conversation.  This is something of a long shot, some will say – though consider “I explained that I wanted to destroy capitalism and that I considered masculinity personally oppressive” – but what fuels these pages is the mismatch between an aspiration to live one’s life in accordance with a theoretical critique of modern life and your actual daily existence, especially when the possibility of love is involved.  Contradictions, compromises, ironies and ambiguities inevitably follow, and entertainingly so. This, after all, is a novel that can get away with a line of self-examination like:

… have I sometimes exploited a reductive iteration of gender theory to avoid serious moral engagement … ?

Serious stuff (the paragraph also acknowledges self-harming), but am I wrong to also spot humour in the employment of that phrase?

Here’s the disappointing cover of the soon to be published paperback. Ok, there is a significant sojourn on a French coast, but this really undersells what’s going on between the covers.

Frances and Bobbi – the odd girls out at school – had been lovers, but are now besties; they are performance poets – a double act even – though we get no flavour of the material.  Frances is the writer, while Bobbi has the confidence and charisma.  They meet up with a pair of older established culture vultures, a married couple – Melissa a successful writer, Mark a sometime semi-successful actor.  Their lives become entangled and we run a gamut of adultery, infidelity, jealousy, feeling worthless and having fun, not to mention frustration, vulnerability, exhilaration, reconciliation, and student survival, all punctuated with some fascinating conversations, variously full of intelligence, belligerence, caring and wit.  There is no definitive reading to be had from the ending (was that an echo of Ulysses’ Molly I felt there?) but our narrator has survived; passages have been rited (I’m just not going to say ‘rites of passage’).  It’s a tremendous bit of writing, wise beyond its years.

The thought occurred: am I too old for this sort of thing?  Thankfully not. “I felt like I was playing a video game without knowing any of the controls” is not a simile that I’d employ, but I certainly remember with a degree of nostalgia these phases:

Though I knew I would eventually have to enter full-time employment, I certainly never fantasised about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role. Sometimes this felt like a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me. On the other hand, I felt my disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy.  (p23)

 That sounds like a recipe for disastrous unhappiness, I said.
You’re twenty one, said Melissa. You should be disastrously unhappy.
I’m working on it, I said.  (p203)

Sally Rooney had me worried when Frances, in her vulnerability, started reading the Bible, but I should have had faith:

 My favourite part of the gospels was in Matthew, when Jesus said: love your neighbours, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use and persecute you. I shared in this desire for moral superiority over my enemies. Jesus always wanted to be the better person, and so did I. I underlined this passage in red pencil, to illustrate that I understood the Christian way of life.
The Bible made a lot more sense to me, almost perfect sense, if I pictured Bobbi as the Jesus character. She didn’t deliver his lines entirely straight; often she pronounced them sarcastically, or with a weird distant expression.

Good old  (young) Bobbi: “I couldn’t tell whether she was being affectionate or vitriolic; she had a way of making them seem like the same thing“; but, still,   Everyone’s always going through something, aren’t they? That’s life basically. It’s just more and more things to go through.”  Doesn’t stop her interjecting into a discussion about commitment, of the possibility of loving more than one person:

Well, it depends whether you believe in some kind of transhistorical concept of romantic love consistent across diverse cultures, said Bobbi. But I guess we all believe silly things, don’t we?

For what it’s worth, the title of my piece is a skewed take from the paragraph below.  ‘Operant discursive practices’ is Foucault, I think, or one of those post-structuralist or whatever theorists whose notions overtook large parts of academe in the ’70s.  I’m glad I escaped it … just.  And of course we just had thick A4 exercise books and a biro:

Over the summer I missed the periods of intense academic concentration which helped to relax me during term time. I like to sit in the library to write essays, allowing my sense of time and personal identity to dissolve as the light dimmed outside the windows. I would open fifteen tabs on my web browser while producing phrases like ‘epistemic rearticulation’ and ‘operant discursive practices’.

If I could have made anything out of ‘epistemic rearticulation’ I would have.

Worth saying too that in the quotations of conversations I’ve used it’s not me that discarded the conventional inverted commas speech mark punctuation; Rooney doesn’t use them.  Three out of the last four books I’ve read have used alternative conventions – something I’m in favour of, and shall probably ponder here in the near future.

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