Review round-up

I’m still not doing well with this blog, am I? What can I blame for this? The fact that I have been, and still am, going through a long ‘period of transition’ with work? My unreliable health? The utterly terrifying state of the world? I’ll go with all of those.

I’m impressed that I managed to squeeze out that long post about The Book of Strange New Things. Not quite sure how I did it. It did take me a very long time. It’s probably best that I return to mini-reviews for the time being. I’ve finished four books since that one, and they were all great! So that’s good. Here they are.

Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris

This was a clever novel. It encapsulated, for me, the emptiness of 9-5 office work and how people come to expect so much from it and dedicate their lives to it when in reality they could be discarded at any moment. It was about how workers are actually human beings, but are made (or choose?) to spend most of their time stuck in an unnatural, absurd environment and routine.

I had a sense throughout of being in good hands; that Ferris had masterful control over the narrative. There was a change of tone part way through from the multiple viewpoint, ‘we’, to the third person more intimate perspective of the boss that felt jarring at first, but the events that transpired later meant that it was actually very well-placed and appropriate. There was what seemed like a shocking event later in the book that, again, seemed to change the tone of the book completely; but then it became farcical/darkly comic, and therefore fit in perfectly.

I found my enthusiasm for the book waxing and waning throughout. One minute I would be thinking it was absolute genius; the next that maybe it wasn’t so amazing after all. I do find myself still thinking about it now, more than a month after finishing it. The characters and situations are so lively, real and well-handled. The use of the ‘we’ viewpoint lends the story a freshness which also adds to making it a memorable read.

The Secret of Platform 13, by Eva Ibbotson

I loved this book and wished I had discovered Ibbotson as a child. I’m sure my life would have been much richer for it.

The Secret of Platform 13 has some striking parallels with Harry Potter: a portal to another world on a platform at King’s Cross station, and a young boy who lives with a horrible family who neglect him in favour of their bratty son, to name a few. (Ibbotson was not angry about this: in fact, she acknowledged that it is common practice for writers to steal from each other and, indeed, everywhere.)

It is also a very different book to the Harry Potter series. Platform 13 is a short, complete story in itself. I immediately connected with Ibbotson’s down-to-earth humour, unexpected characters, and general outlook. If there was a down side, it was that the plot twist was not especially surprising to me, and I’m usually terrible at guessing plot twists. I also felt that the action became a little too fast-paced and frantic and lost me a bit, as I have also found with writers such as Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett. But the other elements of the book meant that I was able to forgive this, and still loved it overall.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

I’m glad I got around to reading this, although I felt kind of guilty for not having read it much sooner. I guess I chose to read it now because it feels like we are heading for dystopian times and I’d like to be prepared, or something.

Anyway. I was surprised and pleased by how expressive the style of writing was. It almost felt unusual, as if a book written in such a style would never be published these days. This made me feel a bit sad. I loved the concept, the driving force and passion behind the story. Perhaps if I’d read it at another time I would have felt a little differently; but many of the concerns that Fahrenheit 451 tackles – especially the act of dumbing-down and how damaging this can be to humanity, and how, despite everything, humans keep making the same self-destructive mistakes – feel so, so relevant at the moment. They feel relevant now in such a way that, I don’t think, I ever felt they would be. I think I genuinely used to feel that humanity, for the most part, had learned its lessons, and that the atrocities of the past therefore couldn’t possibly happen again. I don’t feel that way now. Not since the European Union referendum and everything that has happened since.

I felt that it could have been more detailed and fleshed-out in terms of world-building and character-building; and that it didn’t always hold my attention because of – I don’t know – needing a break from the intensity? But the force behind the work was so strong that what could have felt like major flaws in a lesser book only felt like minor ones.

On Writing, by Stephen King

I shied away from reading this for ages, despite hearing over and over again that it was a great book about the craft of writing. I suppose I thought it might be inaccessible to me, having never read King, and, not being a horror fan, not planning to ever read him.

My fears were totally unfounded. The first part of the book is a memoir. King describes some pivotal moments in his life that contributed to his development as a writer. And it’s riveting. It’s a testament to his skill as a storyteller that I was almost moved to tears by his account of struggling by in crappy or exhausting jobs with a family to support and not being able to afford a phone, and then fearing he would find himself, in thirty years’ time, “wearing the same tweed coats with patches on the elbows (…) and in my desk drawer, six or seven unfinished manuscripts which I would take out and tinker with from time to time, usually when drunk”. And then he receives the unexpected news that he will be getting $400,000 for the paperback rights to Carrie. *sniffle*

The second half is less riveting, but is useful and interesting on the nuts and bolts of writing, especially the editing process. There are also some great parts about what writing is like. I loved his comparison to writing stories as akin to finding fossils on a beach:

Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. (…) No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses.

After being in a serious accident whilst still writing On Writing, King thought he might not finish it. His injuries were so severe that it became very difficult for him to write. But he did finish, and I’m very glad he did. And he uses this experience to write the last part of the book, acknowledging that:

There have been times when for me the act of writing has been a little act of faith, a spit in the eye of despair. (…) Writing is not life, but I think sometimes it can be a way back to life.

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The Book of Strange New Things

Michel Faber has been one of my favourite writers for years. The Crimson Petal and the White, Under the Skin, and The Fahrenheit Twins are books that I thought of, unquestioningly, as great. The richness and headiness of Crimson Petal; the fact that the ideas in Under the Skin contributed to me becoming resolutely vegetarian ten years ago; the freshness and boldness of the stories in Fahrenheit – he is undoubtedly a memorable writer. Some writers write books that are all quite similar in subject matter and tone. Faber is not one of these writers.

For some reason, though, I wasn’t especially excited about reading his latest (and his last?) novel, The Book of Strange New Things. I bought it ages ago, but left it unread, despite the shiny, swirly, mesmerising cover.

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It might have been because I’d read some reviews that were less than enthusiastic; and some which mentioned that large parts of the novel kept them in an almost unbearable state of anxiety – not something that I was particularly keen to experience.

I finally read it recently, anyway. (There will be spoilers to follow as I think it would be difficult to write about the book without them, so perhaps don’t read on if you haven’t read it and plan to.) It follows the journey of Peter, a pastor who is employed by a corporation, USIC, to go to the planet Oasis, where he is expected to teach the native inhabitants about Christianity. He leaves his wife, Bea, behind on Earth. When Peter arrives at the USIC base he is not too enamoured of the place. He comes to feel ‘depressed’ in his room; he feels uneasy about the previous pastor and a linguist who have gone missing; the rest of the USIC employees, whilst generally amiable, are also self-contained, detached, kind of hard-edged and mostly sceptical about religion. Whilst Peter tries to fit into this place, Bea’s life, and life on Earth as a whole, falls apart in major ways.

Eventually, it becomes clear that the real reason the USIC base exists is because they knew that Earth was going to fall to pieces, and they would need to move humans elsewhere. Peter was essentially required because the Oasans have an inexplicable obsession with Jesus, and having someone there to be their pastor means that they are motivated to produce food for USIC from an indigenous mushroom-like plant called whiteflower.

I enjoyed and admired many things about this book. The best thing about it was the Oasans. I loved it when Peter finally got to visit them and we were introduced to them and their environment. I suppose partly because there was a long build-up, when he arrived at their settlement and was about to meet them for the first time, I felt a keen sense of wonder and anticipation. I felt that I was there with Peter. And the Oasans did not disappoint. They are solemn and reserved, gentle, and wear long robes that are subtly different colours from each other. They don’t have human faces, although Peter keeps trying to assimilate human faces onto them, despite the fact that they actually resemble ‘a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel’ or ‘a placenta with two foetuses’.

I also loved how Faber approached the Oasan language. They speak English quite well, having been taught by the mysterious missing linguist; but they have trouble pronouncing some English letters. These are replaced, in the book, by the Oasan letter. When Peter starts learning the Oasan language, more and more of his dialogue with them is written purely in Oasan, and is therefore unreadable to us.

The environment itself, too, was brilliantly evoked. The landscape is almost painfully barren, whiteflower being the only thing that will grow successfully. The Oasan settlement is austere. The air quality has an especially strong presence: it is thick and vaporous; an ‘insidious atmosphere’. When Peter thinks about his attempt to sleep in the Oasan settlement, he remembers ‘imagining every minute that the surrounding air was lifting the blankets with invisible fingers and slipping in beside you’. This richness of description, this ability to really draw you into another world, is something that reminded me of Crimson Petal.

And yet. Despite all this, I was unsure, when I finished, how I felt about the novel. It seemed like there was something not quite right about it. I realised that it might have been that I didn’t feel much of anything, except for a kind of queasy disappointment when The Cat Incident was described (which I will not go into further), and the sense of wonder at meeting the Oasans, and then something like relief when Peter decided (spoiler!) he was going to go back to earth and find Bea – even though it also felt like all was already lost by then.

And I remembered something else – a review I had read describing Faber’s previous books has having a ‘nastiness’ about them. And then I read an interview with Faber in which he talks about the influence his wife had on his novels – he would often write uncompromising endings, but she would encourage him to make them more reader-friendly. I wonder if it is this sort of nastiness that I felt was present in this novel (The Cat Incident!!) and that I couldn’t quite get over it enough to feel that the ending sufficiently made up for the often ruthless tone of the rest of the book.

I also felt confused about what Faber was aiming for with this book. Was it supposed to be an exploration of how strong, or not, the bond of love is? Was it supposed to be an examination of Christianity? In the interview with Faber he says that it was meant to be a book about how amazing human beings are, illustrated by the idea that (spoiler alert, again!) the Oasans can’t heal themselves, which explains their obsession with Jesus and the resurrection. (There is also a moment when Peter is seriously injured, and the Oasans assume he must be dead, as they would be if they suffered the same injuries. But he returns to them and they see it as a miracle; as confirmation that resurrection is possible.) Although I appreciated these separate strands, I never really felt that they came together into a cohesive novel. The fact that the Oasans can’t heal themselves was presented as a moment of astounding revelation to Peter – but I kind of felt like it came too late, and that it wasn’t a significant enough hinge for the whole novel to hang on.

It has been interesting to read Michel Faber again, and also to read interviews about and reviews of the book, and to think about how my opinion of him as a writer has changed. It was around ten years ago that I first read his stuff. It would be great to revisit those earlier works and see if I have the same overwhelming, unconditional love for them now that I did then.

A breezy round-up

Contrary to appearances, I haven’t forgotten about this site. In fact, I was wrangling with the draft of a post about Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark for ages, before feeling like I couldn’t do justice to the book, and giving up. And then several weeks passed, and it seemed too embarrassing to come back. You know, like when you think you really must get in touch with that old friend, or reply to that email, but then you sort of don’t get round to it, and then by the time you do, it’s far too late to be socially acceptable, so you continue to fail to communicate. Well. I’m back. So much time has passed that it’s not embarrassing anymore. Go on. Do the same thing with those unanswered emails and long-lost friends. You know. If you want to.

Anyway. I think one of the reasons I failed to finish the Solnit post is that it isn’t the right time for me at the moment to be attempting lengthy and in-depth reviews. So instead, I’m going to list some of the books I’ve read recently, and then just say a few words about them. Not too taxing. Nice and breezy. I can do this. Here we go.

Mixed Magics, by Diana Wynne Jones

I hadn’t read any Wynne Jones for years and picked this up in January for some much-needed light relief. It was great to go back into the world of Chrestomanci. The four stories in this collection all feature him in some way, but are self-contained with their own characters and settings. I was reminded of how enjoyable it is to read anything by Wynne Jones. I am always in awe of the workings of her mind and the ingenuity of her ideas. I’m aware that this is perhaps a rather vague review. This is what happens when you leave things too long, folks.

Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art, by Susan Aberth

I should do better with this as I finished it more recently.

I can’t remember where I first saw a Leonora Carrington painting, but I know it was about ten or so years ago. It must have been a picture on the internet, or maybe in a book. I was captivated by her ethereal, quirky imagery and felt an immediate connection.

I had this book by Susan Aberth on my wishlist for years, but never got it. Then a friend very kindly gave it to me for my birthday last year. I’ve spent the last few weeks reading it in the evenings, luxuriating in the coloured prints. Aberth’s text, while not particularly sparkling, gives a fascinating insight into Carrington and her eventful, often tempestuous life, most of which I knew nothing about. Aberth also gives close readings of some of the paintings, revealing the symbolism and associations present in even the smallest details, and how these intimately relate to Carrington’s own life and her ongoing themes of rebellion and feminism.

I felt privileged to gain this richer impression of Carrington. I’ve always thought of her as an influence that is kind of embedded in me, along with Tori Amos and Margaret Atwood, I suppose because I found them all at the right age. Three wise women.

Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit

I finished this quite a long time ago, too, but I really must try to write at least something about the book. It deserves it. Okay.

Hope in the Dark is a stimulating and intensely thought-provoking read about the power of activism. The ‘dark’ in the title is not necessarily a bad dark – Solnit quotes Virginia Woolf in saying that it just means unknown, which is the best one can hope for. Amongst many other profound and nuanced observations, Solnit emphasises that campaigning for change is not something that is finite: it is a slow and continuous process, and often instigated by those in the margins, although this is usually forgotten when the change becomes absorbed into society. I’ll stop there because I again feel like I’m not doing the book justice. I’ll just say that it was sometimes challenging, definitely rewarding, and highly relevant today, despite being written in 2004.

I’ll be back soon, hopefully with thoughts on Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. And by soon, I mean soon. Promise.

Why I Write/Things I Don’t Want to Know

I was hoping to have another post up here before now, but the year’s got off to a sluggish start and I haven’t hit my reading stride yet. However, I have finished two short books: Why I Write by George Orwell, and Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy.

I had added the Levy book to my burgeoning Goodreads to-read list because I am partial to a good personal essay, especially if it is related to the process of writing. It had good reviews and an intriguing blurb. It also helped that it is short. It’s always nice to be able to finish something quickly.

I realised, though, that as Things I Don’t Want to Know is a response to George Orwell’s essay Why I Write, I should probably read that first. The Penguin edition comes with three other essays by Orwell: The Lion and the Unicorn, The Hanging, and Politics and the English Language. I found this a little misleading, as the book is just titled ‘Why I Write, with no indication of its other contents. I had only intended to read the title essay, but then felt obliged to read the others.

This was fine in the end, as I found them all interesting; although I did get a bit bogged down in The Lion and the Unicorn. I wonder if this was because I was reading it more out of a sense of duty rather than choice. However, it was often fascinating to read Orwell’s thoughts on World War Two and the future of Britain while the war was still happening. The Hanging is a short, sharp, affecting story from his time in Burma. Politics and the English Language has many things to say about bad writing and why people should stop doing it, and many of the points made are still very much relevant today.

Back to Why I Write and Things I Don’t Want to Know, though. In his short essay, Orwell gives an account of what he was like growing up, and some of his early writing. Many points struck a chord with me. Here’s an example of a passage I identified with:

I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued. I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.

He then goes on to give four main reasons why he thinks one writes (writers in general, not just him). These are: 1) Sheer egoism; 2) Aesthetic enthusiasm; 3) Historical impulse; and 4) Political purpose. Things I Don’t Want to Know is structured using these four reasons, but in reverse. Levy uses the first part, ‘political purpose’, to write perceptively and often academically about being a woman (including quotes from Kristeva, Duras and De Beauvoir), and about the genesis of some of her writing. One of the many passages I loved:

Like everything that involves love, our children made us happy beyond measure – and unhappy too – but never as miserable as the twenty-first century Neo-Patriarchy made us feel. It required us to be passive but ambitious, maternal but erotically energetic, self-sacrificing but fulfilled – we were to be Strong Modern Women while being subjected to all kinds of humiliations, both economic and domestic. If we felt guilty about everything most of the time, we were not sure what it was we had actually done wrong.

The chapter takes the form of a story, framed by a period when she was having a hard time and went to Majorca to try to get away from things. She presents her experiences, and the reader can work out what her political purpose might be. I’ve barely scratched the surface here, trying to say what it is about. It is packed full of stuff. Particularly striking is Levy’s use of language. Long-ago memories and remarks are rendered in achingly precise detail and injected with new meaning.

The second part, ‘historical impulse’, goes back further. Levy tells stories from her time as a child living in South Africa, also evoking vivid, detailed scenes. Part three, ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’, jumps forward to her as a fifteen-year-old, living in London, going to greasy spoon cafés, and acting as if she were a writer. She speaks of her longing for escape:

It was very very urgent that I got out of my life. Inside the greasy spoon’s steamed up windows and haze of cigarette smoke, this sense of urgency accelerated. I had so little time. Time for what? I didn’t know but I was convinced there was another sort of life waiting for me (…)

She writes ‘England’ on paper napkins in the café and feels neither South African nor English; she deals with her parents’ separation and the arrival of a grumpy au pair. ‘Sheer egoism’, a shorter chapter, switches back to Majorca. Levy declares that rather than a room of her own, all a woman needs to write is “an extension lead and a variety of adaptors for Europe, Asia and Africa”.

I very much enjoyed Things I Don’t Want to Know, as is probably evident. The only flaw is that I wanted it to go on much longer. But it is so tightly crafted and enriched with detail, I could probably go back again and again and reap something new from it every time.