Patrick Flanery – I Am No One

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Through the looking glass, and down the rabbit hole : the world of the watcher and the watched

I Am No OnePatrick Flanery’s third novel takes the reader almost immediately into a shifting sands world.

We are never quite sure, for example, where the narrator, a middle-aged History Professor, now teaching film studies, back in New York after 10 years in Oxford, is, in time. He appears to move between a something-has-happened future, a present where something-is-about-to-happen, and his earlier, settled Oxford past. Except that he begins to take the lid off that past, and there are further shifts, Not least of which is identity and origin. Jeremy O’ Keefe is not allowed to be American in America – influenced by his 10 years in England, his fellow Americans are convinced he is a Brit, but, despite his attempts to ‘acculturate’ himself in England, he was firmly not allowed to forget he was American.

At the start of this book, O’ Keefe’s voice is measured, precise, almost pedantic, a correct, dry, considered and intelligent academic voice. O’Keefe (in the voice which Flanery gives him) is very much the didact, donnish, instructing the reader at all times. It’s a little like sitting in on a lecture, with cultural references offered, and you, as reader, are expected to engage and get the references. But this voice begins, subtly, but inexorably to shift, becoming a little waspish, sharp, sarcastic, full of asides that indicate that all is not quite as we, the readers, might assume about Jeremy O’ Keefe. Is this a narrator to be trusted? Is he an unreliable narrator? Might he be disordered, even deranged?

surveillance-cameras-400

I was very quickly floundering, anxious, confused – and Flanery was deliberately taking me to that place, because this uneasy, doubting world, so different below its surface, is the world the narrator inhabits. A world where nothing is quite as it seems. Jeremy O’ Keefe appears to be under surveillance. And may have been so, for quite some time.

This is the theme of the book : the increasingly ubiquitous surveillance society, particularly in democracies. Surveillance is not only something confined to totalitarian societies. Developed democracies, and advanced technology allowing advanced surveillance. coexist and feed each other. Watching, being watched.

Flanery is a wonderfully crafted writer who writes ‘about stuff – big stuff’, but, at least in his first two novels, without polemic. Character, place, narrative, relationship, authenticity in character, voice and action are the authentic containers for the philosophical ideas Flanery wishes to explore.

Unfortunately, with this, his third book, I began to feel, from about half way through the book, that the ‘about’ had become more central than the fictional framework.

surveilllance

Something Flanery has done brilliantly in his previous novels, is to offer complexity through having more than one narrator, more than one point of view, each of which is fully engaged in, so that a depth and range of arguments can be explored. In I Am No One, we really are only taken into Jeremy’s point of view. Initially, whilst O’ Keefe is unsure what it going on, and it seems as if he could be having some problems with his memory – at least, this is his initial, quite rational conclusion – the reader is satisfyingly presented with a few choices: Is Jeremy a reliable narrator? Are the things which are happening really happening? Is he suffering from paranoia? Does he have some neurological physiological or psychological trauma? Is he perhaps suffering from paranoia and yet right to be paranoid, because the things that are happening are real?

security-camera-iphone-app-video-playback

So far, so good. We learn, fairly early on, that Jeremy is writing the sequence of events which are happening, for some reason. There comes a point as he begins to reveal more of his past to the reader (and whoever, in the novel might be the recipient of his writing) where we see what the answers to all the above questions might be. And most importantly, some of the revelations the reader is given not only answer our questions about what is going on, but, surely (as Jeremy knows his own history) would have answered his own questions, too, at an earlier stage. Without plot spoilers, which I don’t want to indulge in, it is difficult to explain. But the result is the wonderful unsureness which the reader experienced before Jeremy comes clean about what is happening retrospectively, then has to seem authorial contrivance (Flanery’s). And as O’Keefe is a history professor with a particular interest in surveillance society – he specialised in the Stasi – he knows what might alarm States. I felt as if the ‘ambiguities’ about what was going on, as far as the reader is concerned, were being artificially maintained for us, by Flanery, and I couldn’t quite believe the narrator’s questioning of the ambiguity of what was going on, in terms of is-it-real-or-am-I-imagining-this?

A further example of where I think Flanery ended up fumbling and dropping the balls he was juggling, is the often resurfacing dark hints which Jeremy drops about how, at an earlier stage in his academic life, before Oxford, he failed to get tenure in his previous post in American academia. The narrator returns to that, time and again, and I kept waiting for the revelation of what had happened. But it never comes.

It’s been a real struggle to review this. Patrick Flanery is a wonderful writer, and I Am No One is still a good and important book. Unlike his earlier books, however, I think this one is more of a cerebral book, challenging to the intellect alone. One of Flanery’s strengths as a writer is to take the reader into the mind, heart, gut of his central characters, to come inside their idea of the world, to understand and believe their authenticity. It was accepting O’Keefe’s authenticity which I began to struggle with after the ’I-won’t-reveal-the-spoiler’.

Part of the problem is that Jeremy, being the man he is, rather stands outside his own emotional and visceral experience. There is a kind of aloofness in his voice. He observes himself, and doesn’t quite come close inside himself. He is more of a watcher, and we don’t have anyone else presented from their ‘inside’ – we only have Jeremy’s view of how they are viewing him.

surveillance camera downwards

I suspect, had I never read any Patrick Flanery before, I may have liked this more warmly and enthusiastically than I do. I don’t think I would have surrendered to it, I don’t think I would have loved it, but I would have liked it more decisively – because I would not have those two extraordinary novels to make comparisons with, and would not have seen what I am missing, with this. That I believe it is worth reading is given that, until about half way through, even this early in the year, I thought this was going to be one of my books of the year, which both previous novels had easily been

Do read it – even in my disappointment I can see how good a writer Flanery always is, and this is still a pertinent and thought provoking novel.  And then, if you don’t know them already, do read Absolution, and do read Fallen Land.

I wait, eagerly, for Flanery’s next novelPatrick Flanery

I received this as an ARC from the publisher, Atlantic Books

Although the book is available in hardback and Kindle in the UK from February 4th, American readers will have to wait until July for a wood book copy, though the Kindle is available from 4th February

I Am No One Amazon UK
I Am No One Amazon USA

Ulla-Lena Lundberg – Ice

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Fishing, Farming, Faith and Community: Finnish Island Life, in spacious Fin-Lit-Fic

IceForget the gloomy darkness of Scandi-Noir, what we have in Ulla-Lena Lundberg’s Ice is a carefully crafted, slowly unfolding sense of reading relationship, where characters are met, the reader can both quickly gain an instant, workable impression and find themselves deepening into understanding and friendship with them. There is, for sure, narrative, but the narrative is less driven by the over-blown, operatic demands of fast pounding scene building two-hours or less block-buster film making or airport reading suspense, and more the narrative imposed by the normal events of daily lives, carried out in particular times and places.

In this case, the time is 1946, the place the Örland (Äland) islands, off the Finnish and Swedish coast. My sense of Finland’s geography and history, before reading Lundberg’s novel, originally written in Swedish, and wonderfully translated by Thomas Teal, was far less than could have been written on the proverbial postage stamp. Now, it is considerably more, Lundberg painlessly, not to mention fascinatingly instructed me through the story of characters, and sent me to gain more understanding via the web. I was surprised, for example, that Lundberg was writing in Swedish, particularly as she is Finnish, and that language is the language spoken by the majority of Finns, though Swedish is the second language. Except……….that Lundberg comes from the Älands, and though the Islands are now “an autonomous part of Finland”, the language spoken by the vast majority is Swedish. The Äland archipelago has a complex relationship between its powerful mainland Scandinavian territories, and Finland as a whole an even more complicated history, squeezed between the historical rapacity of both Germany and Russia, and the complicated twentieth century conflicts. So there was a lot of interesting learning about background. Lundberg sensibly chooses to avoid having a character deliver lectures to enlighten the reader, much is throwaway information, which a reader can either choose to immediately accept, perhaps with a small cloud of minor puzzlement, or can choose, as I did, to want to grapple with in ‘on the side’ research.

Alands

What the reader is instantly drawn into is how a small community, with the normal alliances and enmities which any small community might have, lives out its lives. If you welcome a book which describes a much more visceral life than one lived in cities, this should fascinate, because the detail of the seasons, the food, the culture of lives lived by engaging with the land itself is wonderfully done

No connecting bridges in ICE, though their construction is part of the story.........

No connecting bridges in ICE, though their construction is part of the story………

The main storyline concerns a novice Lutheran priest, Petter Kummel,his wife Mona, and their young daughter, Sanna, who arrive on Älund. Petter is there to be the new pastor. It is of course a brilliant way to introduce the reader to Älund life, as the central characters also are in the process of learning! Much happens, trials, tribulations, celebrations, friendships, rivalries, complex family and community dynamics. And, arching over all, a deep love of, and relationship with landscape, from the author, and from her characters.

Their third winter, Petter has lived through every kind of weather out here on the Örlands and moves easily on land and water across his parish. The darkness is not completely dark. Because the islands are not covered with forest, the land lies open to the sky. Starlight and moonlight can reach it, or the gliding streak of light between sky and sea. “out here we’re always in touch with heaven!” he says to people who ask if he’s not afraid of getting lost in the dark

Petter himself is warm, energetic, compassionate, though there will be some history for the reader to discover; he is far more than a saintly cipher. He is the kind of man who sees the best in others, and so calls that forth. Mona is irascible, energetic, no-nonsense, intensely practical. The two are both foils for each other and excellent partners. Their relationship is deeply loving and supportive, though their natures conflict as much as support each other. They, like the reader, will get deeply involved into caring about the community, and the land they live by, with, on, from.

For much of her adult life, the resources have been so meagre and the need in some cases so pressing that it seemed to her more and more that there was a fixed, inadequate quantity of things in the world. If someone comes up in the world and basks in the sun a bit, then that well-being and sunshine are denied someone else. It’s the same way with things like joy and success. The sum total is paltry. If a little love and happiness come our way, someone else is deprived of them. Envy, which is such a stone in our path, derives from this insight, as does our reluctance to reveal our good fortune to others.

Alands dark skies

The structure of the book is a mite curious, we drift into third person, first person, changing points of view, but it works rather wonderfully. There is a bookend voice, and one which marks major changes, that of the post-boat pilot, Anton, who ferries change and provisions and contact between the Örlands and the wider world, to-and-fro. Anton is like some mythical boatman between worlds. What he does is absolutely real, but there is an undercurrent of messengers from classical mythology, who travel between realms. The nature of his work, in these sometimes frozen, isolated seas, makes him introspective and open to intuitive sensings.Ulla-Lena Lundberg

I warmly recommend this, which I received as a review copy from Amazon Vine, UK. Published 4th February in UK and US

Ice Amazon UK
Ice Amazon USA

Ross Welford – Time Travelling With A Hamster

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Beware of tin baths containing electronic equipment

Time Travelling with a hamsterI am not the target audience for this one, but, like I think many really excellent books for children, it certainly appeals to the inner child of this adult. And I suspect it also appeals to the inner adult of a child!

Albert Einstein Hawking Chaudhury (Al) our twelve year old narrator lives in Northumberland, with his mum, his stepdad Steve, and his stepsister from hell, Carly, who is definitely not emo, but is a goth. Nearby lives Al’s wonderfully eccentric grandpa, Grandpa Byron.

When Al was 8, his father (Byron’s son Pythagoras, Pye) died suddenly, aged 39. We don’t get to find out exactly how and why, initially. Some time later Al’s mum got together with Steve (whose wife had died from cancer). Steve is a good man, though rather dull, and tries really hard to be a replacement dad for Al. But he can’t really come close, because Pye was a wonderfully eccentric and interesting man. For a start, it turned out that he built a time machine, and wrote a letter before he died, to be delivered to Al on his twelfth birthday. And what he wants Al to do is to find the hidden time machine, travel back in time and prevent Pye from dying. Full instructions will be given.

Large upright hamster

Meanwhile, apart from the unexpected birthday present of a letter written by his dead father, Al has a more conventional present of a football shirt for Newcastle United from Steve (Al hates football) and a more appreciated present of a hamster from his mum (the one in the book’s title) At least Steve suggests a name for the hamster which Al thinks is actually better than what HE would have thought of (Hammy or Fluffy) Al has no idea who Alan Shearer is, but it seems a mite more hamster original than Hammy or Fluffy.

A lot of the book is involved in explaining Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and his Special Theory of Relativity, and how time travel might or might not work. This is done in an amusing and interesting way so that not only eight to twelve year olds but even adults without advanced qualifications in physics and maths might become a little the wiser.

Commodore 64 computer, 1982

                       Commodore 64 computer, 1982

This most enjoyable, page-turning, warm-hearted and funny book is about a lot more than time travel however. There’s a lot of emotional learning happens in the story, about love, loss, death, adventure, how to deal with bullies, friendships, not to mention the surprising relationships which become possible if you can time travel backwards and get to meet your relatives when they were younger.

Hamster gif

Al, Grandpa Byron, Pye, and even Carly the Stepsister From Hell, not to mention Alan Shearer, are delightful companions for this journey, and I recommend this book most highly, not just to the target audience (probably 8-12 +, and especially boys as Al will be a wonderful peer to identify with) but also to those well past the age of 8-12 and of female gender. And, of course, to hamsters. Hamsters are Heroes!

I was lucky enough to request and receive this as a digital copy Ross Welfordfor review purposes from the Publisher It is author Ross Welford’s first book. I look forward to more!

Time Travelling With A Hamster Amazon UK
Unfortunately this is not available in the States till the Autumn – except as audible/audio book
Time Travelling With A Hamster Amazon USA
You could always order it as a wood book from the UK site! Or go for Audible

(I reckon this to be the most appealing, adorable, melt-the-heart and compulsive viewing post I have ever made. A hamster wrapped in a cuddle blanket filmed at a ridiculously sympatico angle, endlessly chewing on an everlasting carrot slice, clutched in its tiny paws takes some beating. Come on, let me hear you all say Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh! Even a  winsome kitten or twelve would find it hard to beat this one.)

Elizabeth Strout – My Name Is Lucy Barton

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Nothing Happens; Everything Happens

My Name Is Lucy BartonLucy Barton, a woman whose background was one of deprivation, though that is ostensibly now behind her, is a writer.

In Elizabeth Strout’s short, powerful, beautifully written novel, Barton is primarily looking back on a time, some decades earlier, when she was hospitalised as a young mother, for some weeks, after an operation to remove her appendix went wrong.

Inevitably, the look-back – which spools Barton into both earlier memories and also flash forwards, reminds me of Wordsworth’s dictum: ‘poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity’

What is implied in Wordsworth’s dictum, and laid bare in Strout’s book, is that the place for creativity comes not from the unthinking splurge of violent, reactive emotion, but when a certain observation, a certain ability to stand outside oneself, observing what is arising, gives rise to a stripping away of self-indulgence, of mere confessional venting.

During her nine week hospitalisation, she could see New York’s Chrysler Building, from her hospital bed, glittering and beautiful. The view of a kind of panaroma is echoed as Barton’s life, through the spooling back of memory, reveals itself in similar fashion, and individual memories move in and out of glittering focus

Chrysler_building_by_night

A warning: If you are a reader who needs the action-packed, the hyper-aroused emotion as a writer ratchets up the tension for the big reveal, Strout’s lightly, tightly, almost thrown-away reveals may disappoint. She is not a writer who is writing in the literary equivalent of high volume, flashing light shouting.

Much happens of huge import in Lucy’s story, but what is important, for Lucy, as a person, as a writer, is the ability to transform, how to use her life in order to fully be herself. Not in some huge cathartic revelation of being either the victim or the survivor, but in some kind of daily assimilation and growing.

I must say that Strout’s approach, Barton’s approach, to offer these sideways, unexpected, yet totally truthful seeming reveals shocked and resonated far more intensely, far more authentically, than the more obvious, gothic, dramatic arc would have done. Lucy is soft, malleable, empathetic. Lucy is also self-tempered steel.

The bulk of her recollection is the difficult relationship between mother and daughter. This, is seems is the story which the writer Lucy Barton must tell in order to be authentic. Or, as another writer, whom she meets and is influenced by, Sarah Payne, tells her, each writer has ‘one story’, and that is the one that must be told.

Lucy’s story is this:

This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly

So, perhaps a story about the imperfection of all our loving. Lucy tells us, time and again, that this is not a story about a marriage, her marriage. But what Strout is repeatedly doing, brilliantly, is offering little hooks for the reader to get caught on, little snagging burrs that make the reader pause, and think, feel, what is going on here, what is going on beneath what is being said?

I adore writing like this; I have gratitude for writers who allow their readers to form a relationship within the written material. A writer who does not tell me what I must be thinking and feeling, but can delicately strew my reading path with carefully wrapped treasures, making me pause, engage, reflect.

This is not just a book about Lucy. The net goes wider. It is a book about how our lives shape us, wound us, offer the opportunity to strangely mend us. It’s a book about the shaping of memory. It’s a book about gender and sexuality, and it’s a book about how we search in our relationships as a reflection back, a reaction to and from those first relationships: how we were mothered; how we were fathered.

And it’s also a book, most powerfully fierce about creativity, why write?: Or, as Lucy’s shaping literary guide and tutor, Sarah Payne, says:

She said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do

This is a story in many ways of small lives, not the lives of the famed and powerful. It is written with great compassion

I thought, Pity us. We don’t mean to be so small. Pity us-it goes through my head a lot-Pity us all

Yes

Elizabeth Strout is a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, and I am certainly keen to read Elizabeth Stroutmore of her work, particularly that prize-winning book, Olive Kitteridge

I received this book as a digital ARC from the publishers. Already published in the States it will be available in the UK from February 4th

My Name Is Lucy Barton Amazon UK
My Name Is Lucy Barton Amazon USA

Margery Sharp – Cluny Brown

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Frivolous, charming, frothy perfection, but, nonetheless, with crunch and bite.

margery

I came to Margery Sharp, a writer who was deservedly popular as a fine writer of children’s books and books for adults, from the interwar years, through Jane, of Beyond Eden Rock, a blogger who has been championing her writing, most of which is now out of print. A couple of her books had made her more widely known when they were filmed, The Nutmeg Tree, (by all accounts a disastrous adaptation) and this one, Cluny Brown. Having had a quick look at clips on YouTube, I was not minded to include them. The film is very much ‘based on’ which means, of course, liberties. taken

Back to the book: As Jane runs an annual ‘celebrate Margery Sharp day’ (the author’s birthday), I thought I would try and see what all the fuss is about, track down a Sharp book, and roll up with my Happy Birthday, Margery, review

Cluny BrownAnd I am so very glad I tracked down a modestly priced old copy of Cluny Brown. Some of Sharp’s books are now so rare that they are offered for four figure sums! I can only say that I hope Sharp’s dedicated champions can persuade a publishing house to re-issue her books, so more of us have a chance to read more of them. She is a delightful, nicely sharp, well-crafted, light-touch writer of wit. I have seen her described as a kind of ‘early chick-lit’ All I can say is there is an irony, a kind of delicate and barbed mockery of the class system, that is a million miles away from the (admittedly few) chick-lit books I have read.

Published in 1944, but set a good 6 years earlier, when the idea of war was beginning to rumble away in people’s minds, but war had not been declared, this must have been some kind of much-needed temporary escape from the darkness of the world at war.

Clover (Cluny) Brown is a young, working class woman, only just out of her teens. She is an orphan, presently living with her Uncle, Mr Porritt, a plumber. Cluny is Porritt’s secretary/clerk/message taker. She is, everyone around her insists, remarkably plain. ‘Plain As A Boot’ And very tall. Except, she is really what the French call ‘Jolie Laide’ and certainly her vitality, intelligence and forthrightness are much more alluring and attractive than might be imagined at first glance. One of the major problems with Cluny, at least from the perspective of the more conventionally minded in her world, is that she just doesn’t seem to ‘know her place’. She acts unconventionally, out of class and out of gender – taking herself for tea at the Ritz, having far too much confidence and lack of becoming deference, so that those far above her in class occasionally think she is one of them, making friends with a colonel who doesn’t realise she is only ‘a tall parlourmaid’ The despairing cry from all around is ‘Cluny Brown – Who Does She Think She Is?’ The answer is, alive, enchanting, exhilarating. Following an event where she decides to pick up one of her Uncle’s plumbing jobs, and discovers the attractions of a dry martini, her Uncle decides the safest thing is to make sure she fits in to her proper and expected station in life. And goes into service. She becomes The Tall Parlourmaid for an Aristocratic Devonshire Family.
A Golden Retriever (Wiki, Commons) happily advances the plot.
  A Golden Retriever (Wiki, Commons) happily advances the plot. NOTE for readers of a sensitive disposition the author does not cause any harm to come to her fictional animals in the course of this book

Margery Sharp assembles a cast of strong and quirky characters, all of whom might seem to be examples of ‘types’ – the stunningly beautiful vamp, the scion of the aristocratic house who espouses radical socialist ideas, a louche Polish literary hero, the lady of the manor, all gardening and good works – but Sharp renders them all much more interesting, much more contradictory, and, all of them, much more likeable. Her pen is sharp, but it is also fizzy, joyous, expansive. There is no spitefulness, no meanness of spirit in her writing.

What I most appreciated is that Cluny gets the journey the reader wants her to have – the journey she deserves. There is, I’m sure, a destination which we might discover we are fearing. Perhaps another author would have given her a different outcome. I’m so pleased that Sharp is not a punitive author. Neither is she saccharine, but she views humanity with warmth, I feel.

I definitely want to read more of the wise, warm, witty Ms Sharp. Lacking the funds for four figure sums of stray existing copies, I shall be hoping for treasures in charity shops. Or, perhaps some kind and techy savvy soul could get the oeuvre a Kindled

If you want to know more about Margery Sharp, visit Jane’s blog or this blog, which is 100% Margery

Cluny Brown Amazon UK MarketPlace Sellers
Cluny Brown Amazon UK MarketPlace Sellers

Helen Dunmore – Exposure

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Trust, love, loyalty and betrayal in a very Cold War indeed

ExposureHelen Dunmore’s magnificent novel of espionage, set in England in the early 60s, deep in the Cold War, captivated from its first sombre, reflective sentences in the prologue, right up to the final arresting image.

Simon Callington is a very ordinary man, bright, but never brilliant, he went to Cambridge, and ended up working in an administrative capacity at the Admirality. However, he does have some secrets and inconsistencies in his past. Firstly, he does not reflect the arrogance of his elitist background. He does his work conscientiously, but work is not what matters most – that space is occupied by his German born wife, Lily and his three young children Paul, Sally and Bridget

Callington, with no malice aforethought, becomes embroiled within an espionage ring, purely out of a misplaced loyalty to an old friend, and an accident. Callington, as the reader knows, is not a spy, and the kind of subterfuge needed for espionage is alien to him. Nevertheless, as he gets caught up in events, he, his wife, and even his children, are forced to learn to dissemble. The hunted has to learn to think as the hunter does.

The central character of this book is Simon’s wife, Lily. Lily and her mother Elsa came to England shortly before the war, and, as German Jews, needed to learn to remake themselves in order to blend in. Both Lily and Simon have a certain reserve about them, through circumstance; their loyalty to each other, even though each has secrets from the other, is unshakeable.

Steam train

There are some definite parallels in this story with a well-loved children’s book – E.E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children – 3 children, two girls and one boy, a disappeared father, a relocation from London to an out of the way place, a mystery, and, of course, the role of the railway itself. For me, one of the most poignant themes in the book concerns the loss of childish innocence, and the need to begin thinking, early, with an adult awareness, in order to protect your family. This was the inheritance Lily had had to learn in her own childhood, because of politics, and war, and this is learned again, because of politics, and a different kind of war, by Paul, Sally and Bridget.

Dunmore’s novel has a fine feel for period; this is the very early 60s, and a few short years before the explosion of ‘the sixties’ which began to shake up a society and usher in radical change. Although one could say that on the surface characters correspond to some broad types, Dunmore’s characters are far from cliché – nuanced and individual they can surprise themselves as much as they surprise the reader.

As the end of the novel neared, remembering the prologue did predict the outcome, and I think this was an excellent choice, in structuring the novel. There were certain questions which were left for the reader, the right ones, but this story also absolutely needed the ending it got.

Every character in this book was well drawn and all were more or less like icebergs – whatever you saw, there were hidden depths and surprising delicacies, nuances and understandings going on. There were also odd little throwaways which sent the reader away with some questions (good ones) without firmly spelling things out. An excellent read – and also, I think, with a lot of potential for discussion by book groups

It isn’t what you know or don’t know: it’s what you allow yourself to know….It turns out that I knew everything. All the facts were in my head and always had been. I ignored them, because it was easier. I didn’t want to make connections. I’ve begun to understand that I’ve been half-asleep all my life, and now I’m waking up

I received this as an ARC from the publishers, Hutchinson/Cornerstone Digital, via NetGalley, and recommend it, without any reservations

Helen DunmoreIt will be published on January 28th in both digital and wood book form in the UK, but it looks as if Stateside readers will only be able to get it digi or Audible on that date (or order from the UK) as the hardback looks not to be published till May.

Exposure Amazon UK
Exposure Amazon USA

Bee Wilson – First Bite: How we Learn to Eat

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Food from cradle (and before) to grave

First Bite How We learn To EatI first encountered social historian and food writer Bee Wilson through her brilliant book, Consider the Fork, which looks at history and much more through examining the evolution of cooking, and the implements needed for this.

Wilson is my favourite kind of writer or non-fiction – extensive in research, meticulous citing to enable the interested reader to search further, and, most important of all for me – a gifted weaver of words. However erudite a writer, I need the skills a good novelist possesses – how to tell the story. Essential that this is done in non-fiction as much as in fiction, I think. Bee Wilson knows how to tell the story.

First Bite: How We Learn to Eat is a more personal, different kind of book, though all the strengths of Wilson’s writing, as detailed above, are as impeccably in place. This book takes a long and cool look at the origins of our often disordered eating habits. It is a more personal book because Wilson herself, as she explains, was a disordered eater, tending towards weight gain, attracted to the sugary, struggling with this and that diet. Meanwhile her sibling had another kind of eating disorder.

Food, in lands of plenty, has become a huge problem for man. Fashions in advice for how to change, in the developed world, the curious mixture of obesity and malnourishment which is endemic, is endlessly written about, and the legions of diet gurus all grow fat (metaphorically, one assumes) on the proceeds of the over-fed’s obsessions.

Bee Wilson’s book is not a ‘how to eat more healthily and lose weight’ diet advice or recipe book, though, if that is what a reader is looking for, there is lots of sensible advice to be found within the pages. Rather, what she does, as in earlier books, is to look at a variety of disciplines, from the medical, through to the politics of the food industry, psychology, neurochemistry, culture, sociology, scientific studies and much, much more and blend them together into a remarkably tasty, nutritious, beautifully presented casserole which will leave the reader (well, it did so for this reader), energised, with a feeling of satiety but not over-indulgence, left pleasurably digesting ideas when away from the book, and ready to come back for another meal-read.

Roasted Brussels – Learned Bitter Taste Delight Flicr, Commons Mackenzie Kosut

The book is brimming with all sorts of fascinating facts and ideas. For example, one of the reasons that so many ‘won’t eat their sprouts’ is because we are hard-wired to be alarmed by ‘bitter’. This goes back to our days as omnivorous foragers – bitter tasting plants are more likely to be ones which may be toxic to us – and some plants have evolved ‘bitter’ to deter being eaten, too. Wilson explores, however, the fact that food tastes and fads are a mixture of genetics and nurture. We each have differences in the number of papillae on our tongues, and there is no doubt that there are tastes and smells which some people perceive with ultra-sensitivity, and some cannot perceive at all. Of course, we also learn tastes in the high chair (and earlier) Forced too quickly to eat tastes we don’t like – or, perhaps, not being exposed to a wide variety of tastes during the window of opportunity when ‘new tastes’ are not experienced as threatening, and if, perhaps, we are an individual hypersensitive to ‘bitter’, an aversion to the dark green leafies may be on its way.

Later learned bitter delight

                               Later learned bitter delight

I was fascinated to read how recent (and, again, how specific in many ways to the developed Western world) the idea of ‘special food for babies’ is. There are many cultures where the weaning baby eats what the adult eats. And sometimes this includes food we might consider unsuitable for a baby – garlic, for example. And yet – one of the fascinating benefits for breast-fed babies is that the taste of breast milk is never the same, feed to feed, as breast milk will taste of what mother eats. Garlic eating cultures will have garlic habituated babies from the off!

Bee Wilson is a mother of three, and the book has a lot of focus on the developing of food likes, dislikes, disorders and orders, back from not just babyhood, but in-the-womb. A neat experiment was done with a group of mothers who were due to have an amniocentesis. They were asked to take a garlic capsule 45 minutes before the procedure – and those who had taken the capsule had amniotic fluid which smelt garlicky. The baby in the womb is already ‘tasting’ the food mother eats. Other experiments have verified these findings.
Loving my sprouts early - the other pay-off - bitter dark stuff heaven
       Loving my sprouts early – the other pay-off – bitter dark stuff heaven 
(For the curious William Curley Chocolates So good, so expensive, so luxurious one chocolate is enough rare treat, and satisfies, when savoured)

Wilson was also very interesting about how there are cultural perceptions of different foods being suitable fare for boy children and girl children – and how damaging this is to both boys and girls. Boys are less likely to be pressured to eat up their greens than girls. Meat (and larger portions of meat) is more often given to boys. Salads and sweet things are seen to be more suitable for girls. However – from puberty, girls and women are more likely to be anaemic than men, so actually, girls could benefit from iron rich foods – eg steak, and boys should really learn to be more like girls in their ‘eating up their greens!’

I could go on and on and on about this book. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the politics of the food industry, health, children’s health, – or in the collection of fascinating facts to astound your friends with!Bee Wilson

Highly recommended

I was lucky enough to receive this as a digital review copy from the publisher, Fourth Estate, via NetGalley

First Bite : How We Learn To Eat Amazon UK
First Bite : How We Learn To Eat Amazon USA

Michael Cunningham – A Wild Swan: and other tales

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Subversive Once Upon a Time, They All Lived Mainly Unhappily after……………..

A Wild SwanMichael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan is a darkly, slyly, sour and witty adaptation of some particularly potent faerie tales.

There’s more than a whiff of Angela Carteresque sumptuousness and sexual meaning out in the open, though Cunningham pulls many of these tales into the here and now.

How could I not start snickering, in a kind of wry, sophisticated fashion, at an opening like this:

Most of us are safe. If you’re not a delirious dream the gods are having, if your beauty doesn’t trouble the constellations, nobody’s going to cast a spell on you. No one wants to transform you into a beast or put you to sleep for a hundred years…
The middling maidens – the ones best seen by candlelight, corseted and rouged – have nothing to worry about. The pudgy, pockmarked heirs apparent, who torment their underlings and need to win at every game, are immune to curse and hex. B-list virgins do not excite the forces of ruination; callow swains don’t infuriate demons and sprites.

Most of us can be counted on to manage our own undoings

I was immediately captivated by the authorial voice which opens out ‘what’s really going on’ displaying the often difficult world of love and marriage, and mismatch between expectation and reality, to belie the traditional ‘they all lived happily ever after’ .

These morality tales (what faerie tales often were) updated, are often beautifully upended. So, for example, the beginning of Cunningham’s version of Jack and The Beanstalk, Jacked :

This is not a smart boy we’re talking about. This is not a kid who can be trusted to remember to take his mother to her chemo appointment, or to close the windows when it rains.

Never mind asking him to sell the cow, when he and his mother are out of cash, and the cow is their last resort.

We’re talking about a boy who doesn’t get halfway to town with his mother’s sole remaining possession before he’s sold the cow to some stranger for a handful of beans….Jack isn’t doubtful. Jack isn’t big on questions. Jack is the boy who says, Wow, dude, magic beans, really?

I was absolutely thrilled to be offered this as a review copy by the publishers, Fourth Estate, in digital version………however, I would urge you to get the wood book, as there are stunning illustrations to each story, by the artist Yuko Shimizu, and I did long to see them on paper.

Yuko Shimizu's illustration for the story "Beasts"

Yuko Shimizu’s illustration for the story “Beasts”

The stories are pretty well all magnificent, and it will be the readers’ pleasure to work out which fairy tales they are based on. The Hansel and Gretel tale is probably my own particular favourite. Most do not end anywhere near happiness, and one must feel grateful, therefore, for the absence of that ‘ever after’Michael Cunningham

Though, to be fair, kind, a little bit magical and hopeful , the final story, Ever/After does give us one redemptive sweet tale to take away, albeit one which starts more realistically and less under the illusion of the romantic happy ever after. In the last story, the couple have fewer stars in their eyes and are not bewitched by sprinklings of too much magic.

HIGHLY recommended; in fact magical

These are, by the way, very definitely faerie stories for ADULTS and not for children

A Wild Swan: and other tales Amazon UK
A Wild Swan: and other tales Amazon USA

Mick Jackson – Yuki Chan in Brontë Country

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Why aren’t Brontë biscuits sister shaped? : The questions of Yuki Chan

Yuki ChanBack in 2010 I had been captivated by Mick Jackson’s The Widow’s Tale, so I was delighted to have the chance to read Yuki Chan in Brontë Country, kindly offered as an ARC from the publisher, Faber and Faber, via NetGalley.

In some ways there are similarities in the territory of both books. The subject is bereavement, and how we can ever come to terms with it, and accommodate the huge gap that losing someone close leaves behind.

In the Widow’s Tale, Jackson wonderfully gave voice to a particular middle aged woman, and impressed me enormously, managing to be wonderfully funny about how grief can manifest, whilst at the very same time, being heart-breaking. I believe there is a kind of derangement which takes place in our normal way of perceiving the world, in loss, and finding ourselves in that place, being prepared to inhabit it, however odd it is to the outside eye, is the way in which in the end we might be able to move to a healed place.

In Yuki Chan, Jackson is jumping across several divides – not only, as a male writer, getting inside the head, heart, body of a female – but, in this case a young female, student aged. And moreover one from a very different culture – Japan. It’s a tribute to Jackson that all this is managed, and the reader both experiences the specific oddness of Yuki Chan at this difficult time in her life, following her mother’s death, and the oddness of her culture, to a Westerner, whilst at the same time enabling us to see the oddness of our own culture, through Japanese experience. Like The Widow’s Tale, this is a very very funny book indeed, and also a lacerating one. The humour prevents over-indulgent sentimentality but the willingness to enter into laceration acknowledges the real pain of loss.

Statue of Brontë sisters, Haworth Parsonage

Statue of Brontë sisters, Haworth Parsonage

There is some mystery which Yuki needs to understand, connected with her mother, which has led her to make an unlikely visit to Haworth, and Brontë country, as part of an eager coach trip of voluble elderly Japanese ladies, all big Brontë fans. Yuki has come to the UK on a short trip to see her bossy older sister, but really, to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She wants to understand why, for example, some years ago her mother came to Haworth and did the Brontë tour.

Yuki is a fashion student, but she just might be interested in designing underground airport terminals. Or she might just become an astronaut, or at least someone who designs clothing for astronauts.

The basic design would have to be clean and simple. No collars or cuffs which might get caught on important levers. Plus it would be good to avoid beige, which has long been a cliché in casual spacewear. You could have a different outfit for each day. That way, when you look around and see how everyone’s wearing blue with yellow trim you know it must be Wednesday. Or if everyone’s in a pink jumpsuit with a Fifties V-neck you know that it’s Friday and there’s only one more day to go

She is bemused by Britain – and why not ? Why, for example are the Brontë biscuits she buys in Haworth just, well, biscuits? What is Brontë about them – surely they should have been Brontë sister shaped, at least? Her fertile imagination can take her into all sorts of strange and interesting territory. Some of this gets written down in her notebooks, ideas for designs :

…platform boots with secret compartments….various unusual haircuts…a woman’s hair is swept up into a towering beehive, with a miniature camera hidden in it. Yuki explains that it’s for a project in which she secretly photographs people’s reactions to her own spectacular haircut

Jackson’s novel slowly gets darker, as we get deeper into Yuki’s journey

Bronte biscuits

I had some reservations, not about Yuki herself, who was believable, weird, absorbing, or her journey. My reservations were with the friend she needs to encounter in order for her journey to be able to properly proceed and conclude. As a foreigner in a strange land whose English is a little challenging, she needs a local. Enter Denny, a strange young woman, resident in Haworth. Denny’s anarchic nature, not to mention a whole section on the moors connected with a dog felt a little too plot driven to satisfy me. Plots must of course happen, but it was Denny, feeling like a device for me, who pulled the book back from 5 star to 4.

Reading is always personal in taste; I note some other reviews felt the book became more enjoyable for Denny’s entrance.Mick-Jackson-002

The Kindle edition will be published in the UK on the 19th January, and on the 21st in wood book. It looks like Statesiders wanting wood will have to wait till April, or order from the UK, though it also will appear on Kindle on the 19th January

Yuki Chan in Brontë Country Amazon UK
Yuki Chan in Brontë Country Amazon USA

Arthur Schnitzler – La Ronde

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It’s Sex that makes the world go Ronde

La RondeArthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde has had a curious history. Schnitzler originally wrote it in 1897. The first publication was a printing in 1900 for private circulation, under its original, German title, Reigen, and its first commercial publication was 3 years later, in Vienna, in a run of 40,000. However it was promptly banned by the censors a year later, and not re-published until 1908 in Germany. A translation and publication in French followed in 1912, with the title which has become most familiar, La Ronde. The translation into English was published in 1920, in a ‘privately printed, privately circulated’ edition

As the play is ‘A Round’ of sexual encounters, it was clearly seen as far too hot to handle.  The title also inherently suggests a kind of dance, where partners are swapped. The play is presented in 10 two-person scenes. Characters are not named, instead, their ‘function’ describes them – for example, the first pairing is the Prostitute and the Soldier. The second scene is the Soldier (from the scene before), with, now, a new partner, the Maid (Parlour Maid). The third scene features the Parlour Maid with the Young Master. The final, scene 10 encounter involves the Prostitute from the first scene, so completing the circle

As difficult as it had been to get the play printed, early performance proved equally challenging. It was not performed until 1912 (in translation), in Hungary, and was immediately banned after that first performance. It had its first performance in German in 1920 in Germany and 1921 in Austria, and was quite violently received, both pro and anti. The ‘anti-camp’ included not only those outraged by its frank acknowledgement of sexuality, but also those who objected to Schnitzler himself – he was Jewish, so subject matter and race were linked by the ‘anti-camp’ as some of those antis were anti-Semitic – the play seen as pornographic, the author attacked as a Jewish pornographer. Schnitzler withdrew the rights to public performance of the play in German, though the play was popular in other countries, in translation – and, most particularly in France, where there were a couple of movie adaptations, one by Max Ophuls (1950) and one by Roger Vadim (1964)

Snippets of Ophuls

When the play came out of copyright early in the 80s, it rather gained a new lease of life, particularly with versions which updated the setting (1890s Vienna) to a more modern take on how class boundaries break down when sex itself, divorced from any idea of permanent encounter, or even, from love, is engaged in for its own sake

So there have been several adaptations of the play setting it in the gay community, a production with characters with a range of sexual orientation, and productions where the ‘class-levelling’ encounters were differently expressed, so, for example instead of Schnitzler’s ‘servant’ and ‘master’, the power dynamic could be expressed using more contemporary ideas of who has power and who doesn’t. There have also been re-writings or adaptations of the piece – for example, the British playwright David Hare, in his version The Blue Room. There have also been musicals based on Schnitzler’s play!

kidman and glen

Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen in David Hare’s version of La Ronde, The Blue Room, 1998, Donmar Warehouse

I have to admit I did struggle with reading the play – far more than the first two novels I read in ‘Reading the Twentieth’ – (Theodore Dreiser’s wonderful Sister Carrie, and Colette’s remarkably free spirited look at the sexuality of young girls, Claudine at School). Schnitzler reads as quite dated. Not to mention a little coy. I don’t know how much translation (Stephen Unwin and Peter Zombory-Moldovan are both credited as translators and writers of the excellent introduction) itself is responsible, and how much is a kind of more dated quality in spoken language, particularly when something about class is being suggested by the use of slang. Using original slang can lose punch. Trying to update specific language can still sound peculiar. Certainly, a play depends on far more than merely words upon a page, but some plays seem to leap more easily into how they might look and sound, when read silently..

So, for example, in this translation, in the first encounter, (Prostitute, Soldier) the Soldier says to the Prostitute at one point ‘Give us a snog’ – so, fair enough, language has been modernised…..except that, a little later the Prostitute says ‘At least give me sixpence for the housekeeper’ and, when he runs off without paying, her language is restrained, her curses mild : ‘You scum! Bastard!’ The mismatches irritated me.

Gustave Klimt, The Kiss

Gustave Klimt, The Kiss

What I did find, far more fascinating than the play itself on the page, was that excellent introduction in this edition, which looks not only at Schnitzler himself, and this play in particular, but at the politics, society and culture of Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, and examines, for example, the popularity of the sentimentalism of Strauss’s waltzes, Lehar’s operettas on the one hand, and the disturbing, more challenging and unsettling ‘new’ music as defined by Mahler and Schoenberg on the other. In the visual arts, a Viennese variant of Art Nouveau was emerging – as seen in the work of Klimt; Egon Schiele was also painting, and there is a frank eroticism in the work of both artists. Sensuality up front, as in La Ronde. There is also, in the music, in the art, and in La Ronde, an underlying anxiety, a melancholy – it is that ‘ring of bright hair about the bone’, the ticking clock, the impermanence of it all – and Schnitzler himself, in a diary entry, links love and death together

Each relationship carries its death right from the birth, just as people do

Lest this all sound too gloomy, there is also, quite clearly, a playfulness in the encounters, and I suspect the best productions will contain the idea of a kind of dance between each couple, a flirtatious game of seduction, deception, dishonesty. The sex-cheating-death-for-a-moment is subtext rather than smacking the audience in the head from the off

Egon Schiele The Embrace

Schinitzler himself, perhaps unsurprisingly, as he had originally been a doctor, was a Viennese, and clearly interested in the mismatch between our conscious structures and our unconscious drives, corresponded with Freud, another Viennese, also Jewish, who of course has been a towering and central figure on ‘the Century of the Self’. Schnitzler, as a doctor, was interested in ‘psychological approaches’ in the treatment of physical ailments. Freud was full of admiration for Schnitzler, and how his writings , through imagination, were laying out much of what Freud’s books are about. Freud’s conclusions came from observations and encounters with clients, and the process of psychoanalysis


Part of the 3rd movement of Mahler’s Symphony No 4, composed 1899/1900

Part of my reason for reading this has been because my original choice of Dreiser, the desire for a lighter read (Colette) and the fact that Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams seemed to me to be far and away the most potentially interesting non-fiction book of 1900, did end up making a kind of reading pattern around women, and attitudes to their sexuality, and the powerful drives we cannot simply rationalise away, though that is indeed what we may strive to do – so, a mismatch between surface and what lies below the surface has seemed a common thread. Dreiser references some of what is being discussed in the Interpretation of Dreams, and talks at one point about pre-existing scientific theories of dreams, which Freud also spends a lot of time dissecting, before talking about his own findings.Arthur_Schnitzler_1912

La Ronde has certainly been an illuminating 1900 piece, though, of course, a slightly controversial one to pin to a specific year, given its stop start, stop start history both on the page and in performance

La Ronde, translated by Unwin, Zombory-Moldovan NHB digital edition UK
La Ronde, translated by Unwin, Zombory-Moldovan NHB digital edition USA

A READING THE TWENTIETH POST – 1900 : FICTION – PLAY – IN TRANSLATION 

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