Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials.
From this, the first sentence of Rachel Cusk’s Outline, I was hooked. It is an engrossing, mesmerising and transcendent read. Trippy, in the best way. Outline made me want to go to Greece to drink inky coffee in hot, dark cafés, being talked to by self-absorbed but interesting artistic types with strong views and good stories.
The plot is a thin, straight line: the narrator – an author and divorced mother of two – goes to Athens to teach a creative-writing course for a week. Each person she meets (a Greek businessman, an Irish writer, an old friend, a publisher, a poet) and each of her ten students tells a story about their life. Continue reading
In this book the characters from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts grow up, get married, have babies, strive, fail, strive again, fail again, take sleeping pills and whisper-fight in the dark….OK, it’s not the Peanuts gang, but there is something in the tone and in the characters of Dept. of Speculation that reminded me strongly of the Peanuts strip at its wisest, most epigrammatic, most Zen.
The novel is a very short read but it lingers long. I read it twice in a row because it felt so good the first time and because, like all small near-perfect things, it’s easy to miss hidden glories at first gulp.
Dept. of Speculation is told from the perspective of a woman whose name we are never told. It covers her early adult to middle-aged years during which she travels, meets and marries ‘the husband’, has a baby, nearly goes demented from lack of sleep and frustrated ambition (she is a writer) and deals in both mad and sane ways with a crisis in her marriage. Not a ground-breaking plot, then, but, my, is it beautiful and funny. Continue reading
This sad and funny masterpiece is about Paul O’Rourke, a hard-working and successful Park Avenue dentist who doesn’t know where he belongs. While working five chairs at once in his insanely busy dental practice he’s also permanently on a look out for that elusive something that could be everything. He’s tried the obvious: a commitment to healthy patients, playing the banjo, streaming movies directly to TV, the Red Sox, golf. Golf had looked promising:
For two months one summer, I thought golf could be everything. For the rest of my life, I thought, I’ll put all my energy into golf, all my spare time, all my passion, and that’s what I did. I don’t think I’ve ever been so depressed.
He knows golf is not the answer when the last ball he ever putts gives him the impression, as it circles the hole, of “my small life draining into the abyss.” (So, no to golf). The Bible was a strong candidate for something that could be everything but Paul had a problem there too:
I never made it past all the talk about the firmament. The firmament is the thing, on Day 1 or 2, that divides the waters from the waters. Here you have the firmament. Next to the firmament, the waters. Stay with the waters long enough, presumably you hit another stretch of the firmament. I can’t say for sure: at the first mention of the firmament I start bleeding tears of terminal boredom. I grow restless. I flick ahead. It appears to go like this: firmament, superlong middle part, Jesus.
The Casual Vacancy is a masterclass in how to plot a novel. There are lots of interesting and connected characters, most of whom live in a picture-postcard English village called Pagford, and lots of interesting and connected things happen to them. The characters are linked through the Pagford Parish Council, the local secondary school or the medical centre. Like a camera on a magical flying dolly, Rowling focuses in on one individual, pulls out to look at their family and friends and then zooms up out of the house or school or hall, off to find someone else to catch up on their story, their family and friends. It’s old school, like Charles Dickens or George Eliot, a brick of a novel teeming with life, a real universe to lose yourself in.
The novel starts with the surprise death by aneurysm of the merry, compassionate Councillor Barry Fairweather. A small man with a neat beard he dies on his wedding anniversary outside the golf club where he was going to dine with his wife Mary. The ‘casual vacancy’ his death creates on the Parish Council opens up a Pandora’s box of greed, lust, envy , racism, snobbery and political shenanigans of every stripe. Pagford clearly has a dark underbelly and this darkness is going to be explored through every possible angle as we follow one character after another who is intent on promoting their own family, or their own interests, above everyone else’s. Continue reading
A small preliminary rave about Helen Simpson. She’s an English short story writer with a low output (one slim volume every five years) who writes smart, funny, sometimes bitter, sometimes life-affirming short stories about normal people living normal lives. Her preoccupations are intimate, domestic, personal: motherhood, housework, relationships, friendships, work, work/family balance – but her themes are universal and political. Apparently Helen Simpson invented mummy-lit, but if that is so, then it’s only in the same way that Jane Austen invented chick-lit.
Hey Yeah Right Get a Life opens with Lentils and Lilies in which we meet Jade Beaumont, a teenager home from school on a study day, upstairs in her bedroom thinking about her summer tan and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (but mainly her summer tan). She’s gazing out her bedroom window upon the street below. In every fibre of her being she’s aware of her growing power: “every day when she left the house, there was the excitement of being noticed, the warmth of eyebeams…she was the focus of every film she saw, every novel she read…” Jade knows what end is up; she fingers her certainties like beads in her pocket. Here she is walking down the boring suburban road in front of her house:
She was never going to go dead inside or live somewhere boring like this and she would make sure she was in charge at any work she did and not let it run her. She would never be like her mother…with her tense talk of juggling and her self-importance about her precious job and her joyless ‘running the family’.
This book has such a wrong and misleading title that I’m all for pretending that it’s not its real name. I read it on my Kindle and every time I went back to it for another delicious dose I’d look exasperatedly at that stupid title on the home page and think ‘but where has the great book I’m actually reading gone?’
The title is the only thing wrong with the book, though.
The story is mainly about Cecilia, a psychotherapist in her late sixties who is forced into early retirement by cancer (anal cancer, and talked about frankly and often humorously). At the colostomy clinic she meets a new friend, Helen, a big loud writer with a fondness for a smoke and a drink and a great line in colostomy jokes.
Cecilia has a son, Ian, from her first marriage. Ian’s a spoilt but basically sound forty-year-old journalist with a loving and competent journalist girlfriend called Marina (who Cecilia likes but admits to being slightly jealous of). Ian turns up one day on Cecilia’s doorstep with a baby called Cephas. Cephas was the result of a brief and totally misguided fling Ian had had with a barking mad beauty called Leda. Leda has disappeared somewhere and Ian has been left holding the baby. Would Cecilia look after it? Continue reading
This is a little black dress of a crime novel: elegant, clean, smart.
Di Porteous is the twenty-six year old widow of a much older art collector. She lives in his beautiful old house by the sea and roams around the beach, listless and sad. She had really loved Thomas, her almost seventy year old husband. He had, in a Pygmalion sort of way, rescued her from a life of crime and taught her everything he knew about art.
Di’s friends are worried that all she does is mope on the beach, missing Thomas and obsessing about some human bones in the basement. (The bone thing is kind of weird – but it’s neatly sewn in to the plot.) Saul, dapper friend and art agent, arranges for Di to meet his sister Sarah in the hope that Sarah’s eccentric vitality will perk Di up. He’s right, it does. Sarah introduces Di to the joys of shopping for clothes and to a mad old grumpy lady whose son has stolen her paintings. Sarah and Di decide to steal the paintings back. Continue reading
This is only the second graphic novel I have ever read. The first was Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, a memoir about Satrapi’s childhood and early adulthood in Iran both before and after the Islamic Revolution. Satrapi’s story was a coming of age story, but also a vivid, graphic (I know) portrayal of what it was like on a day-to-day basis for a normal family to adapt to the changes the revolution foisted on them. I can remember this book clearly; I even remember exactly when I read it (July 2008) and this is unusual for me because no matter how much I enjoy a book it usually gets hazy within six months. (Probably I read too much, too fast and too lazily.)
Alison Bechdel wrote a long-running comic strip called Dykes To Watch Out For and published a graphic memoir called Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic in 2006. Are You My Mother? is a sort of sequel to Fun Home. Continue reading
Harold Fry is an ordinary retired gent. A man of simple habits and mild interests. He sets off on foot one morning to post a letter he has written to an old friend, Queenie, who has cancer. Except, he doesn’t stop at the post box, he keeps on walking. An idea has entered his head: he’ll keep on walking for 500 miles, all the way up the country, until he reaches Queenie. He will walk to keep her alive.
He walks up the country in the yachting shoes he was wearing that first morning, getting them resoled when necessary. He has none of the right gear but is given bits and pieces by strangers; a compass, a rucksack. After the first few days he posts his credit card back to his wife Maureen; he will rely totally on what he finds or is given ‑ or do without. He grows a beard. He meets lots of people. A dog (‘Dog’) attaches itself to him. His journey briefly becomes front page news and he gets followers. Dog leaves him. He leaves the followers, sneaking away from their camp one early morning. Continue reading
Jimm Juree is a thirty-five year old crime reporter in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She’s wrenched from her comfortable life by her mother to go and live in what she sees as a poky hell-hole of a fishing village in the south. Her mother has had the bright idea that the two of them, along with her monosyllabic grandfather and her extremely shy body-building brother, will start a little hotel business in the hell-hole.
Jimm’s mood improves when some long-buried bodies are dug up in the area (sitting in a VW combie, one of them wearing a hat) and she suspects foul play. Not much later a monk is brutally murdered. A monk-nun love tryst seems to be at the heart of the crime. Jimm sharpens her investigative skills and starts to annoy the local cops. There is one competent officer, stuck in the village because he’s gay. Jimm befriends him immediately. Continue reading