Friday, 12 September 2014

Greek slant

I loved The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s novel about a group of classics students who take their lessons in antiquity a little too far. I read an interview with Tartt where she recommended Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles so I’ve been sitting in the garden in the last of the summer sunshine completely absorbed in this novel.

It’s the story of the love affair between Achilles and Patroclus, boyhood friends who train under the centaur Chiron and then fight in the Trojan wars. Achilles is the son of the sea goddess Thetis who is a terrifying character with an extreme aversion to Patroclus:

'She was taller than I was, taller than any woman I had ever seen. Her black hair was loose down her back and her skin shone luminous and impossibly pale, as it if drank light from the moon. She was so close I could smell her, sea water laced with dark brown honey. I did not breathe.. I did not dare.'

The novel is narrated by Patroclus in simple language but it’s a thrilling page-turner so descriptive you can almost see the blue Aegean sea. My knowledge of Greek mythology is patchy to say the least so the sacrifice of the young bride Iphigenia came as a shock and the great river god Scamander rising from Troy’s creamy gold river covered in weeds with water pouring off his back to block Achilles from crossing was brilliantly written.
I also very much enjoyed The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes. It’s the story of Alex, a young woman who has lost her finance in tragic circumstances which gradually emerge as the novel progresses. To ease her grief her kindly former lecturer offers her a job teaching drama therapy to a small group of troubled teenagers who have been excluded from mainstream school because of their behaviour.
Alex is fond of Greek tragedy and introduces the students to the plays Oedipus, Alcestis and the Oresteia. Unfortunately, one the students develops an obsession with Alex and starts to enact a revenge tragedy of her own. To mirror this theme the novel is told in five acts. It’s beautifully written, dark and thrilling and you can’t help smiling at the repartee of the students who may have challenging behaviour but they are as sharp as tacks.
Some new literary fiction to look forward to this month - Outline by Rachel Cusk and Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Let’s hope the September sunshine continues a little longer for us all!

Sunday, 27 July 2014

My Salinger Year

This charming memoir begins with scenes of literary young women, dressed in a style ‘redolant of Sylvia Plath at Smith’ catching the morning train from Brooklyn, Queens, to their jobs in agencies or publishing houses. Most are secretaries or assistants, keen to work in close proximity to writers and editors and many are secretly writing novels or poetry of their own.

The agency which employs Joanna Rakoff has the elusive J D Salinger as its most famous client and she is under strict instructions that on the rare occasions he may call she must never engage in conversation with him, tell him how much she admires his work or - worst of all - share her own writing ambitions with him.  

The memoir is brilliant on the rhythms and routines of work. The agency still uses typewriters and all the letters are painstakingly transcribed from ancient tape recorders and typed on thick creamy paper with sheets of carbon beneath. The boss lives on her fading reputation and refuses to drag the agency into the 21st century, thus constantly losing clients. Although the novel is set in 1997 the long-serving staff evoke a glamorous era of Dorothy Parker quips, martini-soaked lunches and little black shift dresses. Only the long-suffering James tries to modernise the agency and has the temerity to introduce a computer into the office.
There are lots of fascinating little details about J D Salinger. For example, he banned the use of images on his book covers, stipulating just text so that readers would come to the work free of pre-conceptions. He also refused to receive or read his fan mail so Rakoff is supposed to read all of his letters and send a standard response, but she finds it impossible not to try to introduce some empathy and warmth into the responses.
It's also a memoir about a young woman making her way in New York.  Rakoff’s low pay and impoverished state means she has to consider carefully whether she can afford to grab lunch or coffee at the Polish bakery or the Greek deli or just go without.  She lives with her difficult boyfriend in a flat which can only be heated by putting on the oven and leaving the door open.
I would highly recommend this memoir, it’s warm and gossipy and literary but never unkind. Best of all, it has made me re-read Salinger. I loved The Catcher in the Rye when I was seventeen and I was worried that a story of teenage alienation wouldn't mean the same so many years later.  I picked up a copy at the weekend (interesting that Waterstones have suddenly re-stocked it) and haven't been able to put it down.  Franny and Zooey next, anyone read it?

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Lorrie Moore in London

She knew there were only small joys in life - the big ones were too complicated to be joys when you got all through. Lorrie Moore, Like Life
I went to London with my daughter Kate last month to see Lorrie Moore at the South Bank Centre. Although the weather was not warm there was a summery magic to the evening.  I was impressed with Blackfriars station and its view of the London skyline.  The Thames was gloriously grey and rolling and I finally managed to locate the South Bank's open air book market. 

Lorrie Moore read from Bark her new collection of short stories.  Her deadpan delivery of her story Thank You For Having Me which begins with musings on the death of Michael Jackson and moves on to a wedding where the bridesmaid dresses are described as 'one the light peach of baby aspirin, one the sea-foam green of low-dose clonazepam, the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam ' had the whole audience laughing.  The humour is black but also somehow liberating.

When asked for advice by aspiring writers in the audience she recommended to be in it for the long haul, to read and write what you love and to have separate work to make money so that you can be kind to your writing.  She also spoke about a story she'd written called You're Ugly, Too which attracted a lot of attention and has been much anthologised from her Like Life collection

You're Ugly, Too is indeed a remarkable story but I would highly recommend Joy from the same collection.   It's a story about a woman called Jane who loves to sing and works on a cheese counter in the local mall spreading the crackers with samples for customers to taste.  She takes her cat Fluffers to the vet and meets some tiny children with their cat Gooby.  It's funny and sweet and sad.

I don't think I'm going to get a break from work until at least September so I'm having a little summer staycation in the garden with some Lorrie Moore short story collections - Birds of America, Like Life, Bark and a re-read of Self-Help.  I've also just read her wonderful coming of age novella Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?

Have you read Lorrie Moore?

Saturday, 24 May 2014

You Should Have Known

Grace Sachs is a therapist with a thriving New York practice.  Her husband is a paediatric oncologist and her gifted young son is at private school.  Grace is about to publish her first book You Should Have Known based on her theory that women should be able to detect the signs that a man is a womaniser or a debtor or a misogynist early on in the relationship and act accordingly.

The novel opens with Grace's author photo shoot for Vogue magazine.  She is anxious to distance her book from what she considers to be downmarket self-help guides such as The Rules or Relationships for Dummies.  Indeed, Grace is anxious to distance herself from a lot of things, she has let old friendships go and has a fractious relationship with her father and stepmother.  She considers herself and her husband to be conscientious people who work hard for the good of others and are possessed of unshowy good taste.  Grace's wardrobe consists of parchment coloured cashmere sweaters and linen and wool skirts.

Of course, calling a book which captures the zeitgeist You Should Have Known is asking for trouble.  When the mother of a child at her son's school is murdered and her husband goes missing Grace realises she may have missed the cues in her own relationship.  Jean Hanff Korelitz writes particularly well on relationship therapy and queen bee mothers at the school gates (far better than Gill Hornby's The Hive, I thought).  Whether this novel could be called a thriller I'm not sure, but I liked the gradually unfolding revelations and there is some delicious detail.  I loved the part when Grace discovers that the Hermes Birkin bag her husband bought for her is a fake (the bastard!) 

There is an interesting interview with Jean Hanff Korelitz here.  She is a relative of Helene Hanff, writer of 84 Charing Cross Road.  I would also recommend her previous novel Admission, one of my absolute favourites.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Oxford Lit Festival

Last month I went to the beautiful Divinity School at Oxford for Kathryn Sutherland's absorbing talk on Jane Austen’s teenage writings. There was an opportunity to view some of Austen's early manuscripts and it was fascinating to see her extremely neat slanted handwriting. Afterwards, I went to to the Festival tent for a much needed cup of tea and a slice of chocolate button cake and then took a stroll down New College Lane (as recommended by Lucy Worsley). Even a spring shower didn't put me off walking around the colleges as a lovely mineral smell came off of the old buildings in the rain. I then took a walk to Blackwell’s and bought the new Ann Patchett and Gabrielle Levin's novel The Collected Works of A J Fikry.

It was sweet and funny and sad.  A J Fikry is a curmudgeonly independent bookshop owner with a passion for short stories and a dislike of mobile phones, Kindles and pretty much all aspects of modern life.  After losing his wife he turns to alcohol until he meets free-spirited book publicist Amelia who tries to pitch him her winter list.

I won't reveal what happens but I did love some of Fikry's inspired ranting:
I do not like children's books, especially ones with orphans and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult.  I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages.  I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items and - I imagine this goes without saying - vampires. Gabrielle Zevon
Enjoy your Easter break!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Still Life with Breadcrumbs

After a hectic week at work it was a relief to spend a whole evening reading on Thursday.  In fact I ended up reading into the early hours of the morning because I wanted to know what would happen next in Anna Quindlen's new novel Still Life with Breadcrumbs (although I'd kinda guessed.)

I read my first Quindlen novel a couple of years ago and I thought it was good but not great.  This one I liked much better.  It's about 60 year old Rebecca Winter (how many novels have a 60 year old heroine?) who was once a highly successful photographer who became something of a cult figure in the art world and a household name after her success with a series of domestic images. 

Now divorced, alone, strapped for cash with ailing parents she can no longer afford to live in her New York apartment and rents a rural isolated cottage.  Enter Jim the roofer who clears a raccoon from her loft, sorts out her firewood and clears her drive with a snow plough during a blizzard.  (Wouldn't you fall for a man who can drive a snow plough?)  Jim is a working man with a kind heart, no pretensions and a habit of saying 'Ah hell.'  He's also 44.  Quite a bit younger than Rebecca and it's nice to see a role-reversal relationship in a novel. 

Well I won't say what happened next but I enjoyed spending time in the company of these likeable characters and this self-assured author.  This novel reminded me a little of Adriana Trigiani's Big Stone Gap an old favourite of mine.

Lots of contemporary fiction I want to read at the moment, Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The new novel from Jean Hanff Korelitz You Should Have Known and Ann Patchett's memoir The Story of a Happy Marriage.  Alas, they are all in hardback and I've pretty much blown my hardback budget for this year and it's only March!

Although I don't knit or make quilts I'm a regular reader of Jane Brocket's blog and I think she writes very perceptive book posts.  I do like her thoughts on the pleasures and freedom of blogging in this post.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Learning to love a hyacinth

You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is as well to have as many holds on happiness as possible.  Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey
I'm afraid The Little Friend was a Donna Tartt too far for me.  Awful people doing awful things to each other and really, if you threw a live king cobra from a motorway bridge, what are the chances it would go through the sun roof of your victim's car at the precise moment it passed below? 

Time to return to Jane Austen.  Northanger Abbey is perfect to dispel the January gloom and each time I re-read Austen I discover nuances unnoticed before.  I was struck this time by how spare Austen is with her physical descriptions yet how much they convey.  Catherine gazing at Henry Tilney with 'sparkling eyes' tells us all we need to know of a blooming young girl falling in love.  Henry may be a bit of a clever clogs but when Catherine tells him that she is 'learning to love a hyacinth' his witty reply that loving a hyacinth is 'rather domestic' but she may in time 'come to love a rose' is very endearing both to Catherine and the reader.

I'm also fond of Mrs Allen, it has to be said, she is not very bright but she is kind to Catherine  and as she is completely obsessed with clothes and fashion she is the go-to woman for advice on sprigged muslin, Mechlin lace and silk gloves.  Then there is the vain and silly Isabella Thorpe who foolishly plays one of her admirers off against the other only to lose them both.

I do like the cloth-bound Penguin editions.  Unfortunately some of the of the pink gothic keys on my copy of Northanger Abbey have rubbed off after I spilled my tea.  Good job I took a picture first. Happy New Year!