Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Social Reading with Scott & Friends

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

YanagiharaI had been reluctant to read this much-hyped Booker longlisted novel, but after Rebecca’s review for Shiny New Books I was beginning to move off the fence, so that when Scott of Me & My Big Mouth announced a readalong, or as he calls it ‘social reading’ I was ready to join in.

The book has seven parts and the plan is to read one every two or three days. Today is report-back day on the first part ‘Lispenard Street‘ which is 83 pages long.

Most novels use the first chapters to introduce their characters, A Little Life is no difference in that respect.  We meet the quartet of college roommates who have now graduated, moved to the Big Apple and are busy trying to make a life for themselves a few years on.

There’s JB the Haitian painter who’s waiting to be discovered; Willem, a Scandinavian from the Midwest, waits tables while waiting for his big break as an actor; Malcolm is coasting as a junior architect at a prestigious firm while still living at home with his (well-off) parents; and there’s Jude whom we’ll come back to later.

All the bases are covered too: racially – black, white, half and half, and an unknown mix; sexually – straight, gay, undecided; economically – rich and poor; personalities – Willem is kind and handsome, JB. is outgoing, Malcolm is inhibited, and Jude is the brilliant, tortured one.

This first section concentrates on Willem and Jude finding a bijou and run-down apartment to move into in Lispenard Street, it is being sub-let by a friend of JB’s. At the viewing Willem asks:

“Does the elevator work well here?” Willem asked abruptly, turning around.

“What?” Annika replied, startled. “Yes, it’s pretty reliable.” She pulled her faint lips into a narrow smile that JB realized, wit a stomach-twist of embarrassment for her, was meant to be flirtatious. Oh, Annika, he thought. “What exactly are you planning on bringing into my aunt’s apartment?”

“Our friend,” he answered, before Willem could. “He has troule climbing stairs and needs the elevator to work.” (p11)

This is the first intimation that Jude is in some way disabled – but whether from birth, accident of other injury we don’t know yet.

The novel goes on to give us some back stories on JB, Malcolm and Willem, saving Jude for later.  We will find out a little about Jude’s present though – he’s a talented lawyer who’s good at maths. He also self-harms and is in constant pain.  Jude looks bound to be the main protagonist of the novel, with his three protectors.

Well, based on these beginning chapters, I’ve fallen for Willem already and can’t wait (although I know it’s bound to be awful) to find out about Jude.

It’s still just summertime – and the reading is easy!  I’m hooked, and it’s part two on Friday (I’ll only post again at the end, but will comment over at  Me & My Big Mouth.)

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More from the pre-blog archives…

For a wet bank holiday Monday, I’m revisiting my archives of the capsule book reviews I wrote for myself pre-blog. (For more of these see here.)

Having concentrated on 10/10 books in previous posts, I chose some books that I found more challenging this time. I picked the first because I spotted it reviewed on someone’s blog recently – but I can’t remember whose – sorry, I’d link if I could…

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From A to X by John Berger

a to xI loved this book, the writing was exquisite, but I needed so much more from it that ultimately it disappointed a little.

A’ida and Xavier are lovers, but X is imprisoned on terrorist charges. Their story is teased out through some of A’s letters to X in jail which were found in his cell when the new prison was built. He never replies, but sometimes writes on the back of the letters.

They live in an unnamed country where A’ida is a pharmacist. She writes about everyday life, her friends, neighbours and customers, and there are always hints of troubles and oppression in the background and it is implied that she is also an activist. She is desperate to be married to X, but the authorities won’t allow it so visiting X in prison is an unattainable goal for her – she eventually has to be content with fantasising about him. Xavier’s writing is not about A, but is often thoughts about the authorities in the outside world that he is prisoner in.

The reader is left to fill in the gaps which gives great poignancy to the texts, but I was left hungry to find out what happened to them, what X was imprisoned for, what A’s role was in their struggle and other questions. Just a few answers would have satisfied, but with the exception of a brief scene-setting introduction, the author is deliberate in his intention of letting these letters speak for themselves. (August 2008, 7/10)

NOW: I’ve not read any more of Berger’s work since, but am open to suggestion…

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Beowulf trans Seamus Heaney

beowulfThis was my first encounter with Beowulf – I haven’t seen the film either. I chose the bilingual edition to see what the Old English looked like and although I could barely recognise a word, it did help to see the shape, metre and style of the original. Heaney’s translation is easy to read, very straight-forward in language, and the accompanying essay helps you see how much work goes into preserving some of the form of the original in the modern translation.

With the original and Heaney’s version printed side by side, it affected the way I read it. I tended to read it aloud to myself (but in my head), trying to see the translation’s cadence resonating with the original’s two parts to each line. This was novel for me and enjoyable for one who doesn’t normally do poetry!

As a story, you can see why it survives, but there is too much pontificating on the glories of war, fighting and serving the king and not enough action; Beowulf’s dispatching of Grendel seemed to be little more than arm-wrestling and was over in a couple of pages.

I’m glad I read it and am sure I will refer to it again, but now I’m waiting for the DVD of the film. (Jan 2008, 7/10)

NOW: I’d probably score this differently now – with ratings for the story and a higher one for Heaney separately perhaps.  Still not seen the film in full. Instead, see below…

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Grendel by John Gardner

grendelHaving recently read Beowulf for the first time, I was looking forward to this slim novel, told from Grendel’s point of view.

Poor Grendel, although we never find out exactly how he was created, he does realise that he has a bit of man in him somewhere, and he agonises over this as he lurks around watching men and occasionally getting the urge to kill one – always to eat at this stage. It is his encounter with the arrogant Unferth, that starts to really turn him and this is sped on by the dragon’s wisdom until he becomes the killing machine we know from the original text.

The very dense and literary style with much philosophising will not suit all, but it has great insight and goes very well with Beowulf indeed. A difficult but rewarding read. (Feb 2008, 8/10)

NOW: I’d love to re-read this book.

Pop Goes Safety!

Occupational_Safety_EquipmentI’ve just found a batch of papers I’d saved from my previous life working for a multinational chemical company. My last position there, before I left to embark on motherhood, was as the UK ‘SHE’ Coordinator – SHE being Safety, Health & Environment. I collated all the accident and injury figures from our sites across the UK, providing information to the UK board and European colleagues. I also managed the UK H&S defensive driving programme for all our company car drivers and, some might find this contentious in these times when we accuse the government of running a nanny state, I did a lot of promotion of ‘Off the Job Safety’.  The company believes that safety off the job is as important as that on the job, and was very keen to encourage employees (and their families) to apply their work safety mindset at home too. Of course, as well as being good for your health,  it improves productivity and the bottom line not having people off injured through accidents outside work.

I used to get an awful lot of information for creating snappy posters and writing articles for newsletters promoting safety off the job from the wonderful statistics that the HSE used to publish every year – the number of people that were injured by socks – ie falling over and breaking their ankles while putting socks on, that sort of thing.  Sometimes, for fun though, I turned my attention elsewhere, as the article from the 1990s reproduced below (hopefully) shows:

I should warn you at this point, that I am still involved in the world of Health & Safety at the school where I work. I do take it seriously, but not in a silly, banning conkers type way.  I am notoriously thin-skinned about ‘elf & safety’ jokes against Health & Safety professionals and, however silly they have been, I don’t like people getting hurt.  

That said – please do join in the fun – I hope you’ll find some of the text below excruciating and think of some more songs with a H&S link!!!

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Pop Goes Safety! A strictly tongue in cheek safety audit of the British single and album charts

staveThe Ventures earn the title of most safety conscious band for their No 8 instrumental hit from 1960 – Walk Don’t Run – clearly a group that knew our credo, unlike Elvis Costello – his song Accidents Will Happen was a minor hit in ’79, just scraping into the top thirty. Well, they will happen if you Break the Rules as Status Quo did in their ’74 top ten hit – but this could have resulted in making them Accident Prone a few years later, for their only reached No 36 with this song.

The best advice for car owners in the whole charts came from Tony Christie who sang Drive Safely Darling in 1976 – it seems that few took heed though as it only for to No 35. Higher placings resulted for Cyndi Lauper who sang I Drove All Night, which could have had her Crawling from the Wreckage like Dave Edmunds in ’79. Driver training might help Suede‘s parents as someone spotted Daddy Speeding [not sure it was that kind of ‘speeding – Ed] on their second album, and David Bowie sang about someone who was Always Crashing in the Same Car on one of his long-players too.

Wearing of personal protective equipment gets more coverage…

  • EYES: – Johnny Nash‘s hit I Can See Clearly Now could be the result of cleaning his safety glasses. You can’t work without protective eyeshields if you share T.Rex‘s Laser Love, else you could be Blinded by the Light like Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (top ten in 1976).
  • FEET:- Nancy Sinatra sounds like a girl who wears sensible shoes in These Boots Are Made For Walking until you remember the publicity photos of thigh-highs with huge heels – more like Honor Blackman‘s Kinky Boots! Certainly not suitable footwear for doing The Safety Dance, a top ten hit in ’83 for Men Without Hats – now there’s a band who’d never get a job on a building site!
  • HANDS:- Des O’Connor had Careless Hands in 1964 – he should have been more like Sandie Shaw who had a hit with The Smiths‘ song Hand in Glove (of course not Barefootin‘ it this time as Robert Parker did in 1966). For, as we and the Travelling Wilburys all know, Handle With Care is the motto for all dealings with The Nolans – and their 1981 hit Chemistry.

The disco era in the 70s had a lot to answer for with bands like Heatwave singing Slip Your Disc to This and Liquid Gold with Dance Yourself Dizzy. Combined with The Motors’ Dancing the Night Away you too, like Andy Fairweather Low could end up in the top ten, but be Wide Eyed and Legless back in 1975, or Stumblin’ In like Suzi Quatro in ’78, which also stumbled in the charts too at No 41.

Winter pursuits can be dangerous – particularly for the inexperienced: Jethro Tull were Skating Away On the Thin Ice of a New Day in a mid-70s album track, and Yoko Ono was just Walking on Thin Ice too in her only solo chart entry, Slippin’ and Slidin’ like hubby John Lennon from his Rock’n’Roll album maybe. An accident for either could have meant hypothermia, ending up Cold as Ice like Foreigner in 1978.

breaking glassNick Lowe reached no 7 with I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass in 1978 – he and Hazel O’Connor with her album should heed Rod Stewart‘s No 1 advice from the year before with The First Cut is the Deepest when clearing it up. Finally, a word of advice for those of you Pink Floyd fans who like a roaring wood fire – Careful With That Axe, Eugene!

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(P.S. And to think I did all the above with just my trusty books of Guinness Hit Singles and Albums – no internet to search for song titles.)

The one who survived…

Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

Black eyed susans The ARC I was sent of this stylish psychological thriller came bound in black ribbon with a silk flower of the title.

I was expecting the book, but wasn’t expecting a daisy – it turns out that what is known as Black eyed Susan in the US is Rudbeckia hirta – of the aster family. It is the state flower of Maryland and grows all over North America.  If you look up Black eyed Susan in UK catalogues however, you’re more likely to find a totally unrelated herbaceous perennial, Thunbergia alata, which emanates from Eastern Africa originally.

black-eyed-susan-vine-thunbergia-alata1Thunbergia is a scrambling vine with heart-shaped leaves which I used to grow up a trellis as an annual (it’s rather tender to frost). The simple five-petaled flowers can vary from creamy white to deep orange. I wasn’t going to let myself be sidetracked by these botanical considerations though, so I mentally rebooted and started reading.

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When she was 16, Tessa became famous for being the one who survived.  A group of girls were abducted and their bodies dumped in a patch of Black-Eyed Susans, except Tessie, as she was known then, wasn’t quite dead.

This happened twenty years ago, and Tessa has moved on and got a life as an artist and single mum to Charlie, her teenaged daughter.  Life is good when she can stop thinking about the past, but it is all opened up again when a patch of the yellow daisies appears under her window. They must have been planted there, but by whom? Is the man on Death Row for the murders not the killer? Scared again for her own life and that of her daughter, Tessa agrees to work with the lawyers who believe that the man who is locked up and due for execution is innocent.  Cans of worms are opened, almost literally, for the other victims’ bodies are exhumed. Forensic science has progressed far in the intervening years and experts in mitochondrial DNA are brought in to find new evidence.

Tessa’s present day story alternates with that of Tessie, now 17, in the past. Having survived such a terrible ordeal, Tessie is traumatised and is under the treatment of a therapist as she is prepared for the trial of Terrell Goodman, the man they have put in prison. He is convicted on her evidence, despite the huge gaps in her memory.  Her best friend Lydia is a huge support to her through all the build up to the trial.  The conviction doesn’t make it right though and after the trial, Tessie becomes mute for a long time.

It is clear that she buried things back then and more since, unable to comprehend how they fitted into the picture. Throughout the novel, this information will be teased out in both past and present, with evidence leading one way then another until a startling conclusion is reached. I loved the way that the dual time-frame added to the complexity of what you think was happening at any time, vs what she said had happened then, what she remembered happening then now and what really happened, then and now. This deliberate confusion did diffuse the tension at times but certainly keeps the intrigue going.

Heaberlin has done her research well and blended it into the novel without the details intruding too much – the DNA forensics was fascinating and well presented for example. The other area of her research was into Death Row and the work of attorneys like David Dow (see his Ted talk here) and Brit Clive Stafford Smith (I will never forget his TV documentary from 1987, Fourteen Days in May).  Heaberlin’s young lawyer Bill who took charge of the case when the veteran defense lawyer passed away has his job cut out, but proves a sympathetic character and a good balance to Tessa.

I would have reviewed this novel for Shiny New Books, but it’s one of those books that is best recommended without going into much detail. I didn’t want to write a lengthy review, but believe me, I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin. Penguin: Michael Joseph. August 2015, hardback, 368 pages.

Trapped in Genteel Poverty…

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Paying guestWhen we chose the second title for the Shiny Book Club, we wanted something totally different to the first (The Bees, which I reviewed here). It had to fit our criteria of being a Shiny New Book available in paperback in the UK. The obvious choice was Sarah Waters’ most recent novel, which came out in paperback in early summer.  (Note: It’ll be out in September in the US, so you can join in the Shiny Book Club discussion which will run until the next issue in October).  I’d bought the hardback last year, and very much enjoyed reading it, although holding it open (I don’t care to crack spines), made my wrist ache in bed!

A very quick synopsis of the basic plot. It’s 1922 and Frances Wray lives in genteel poverty with her mother in Champion Hill, the posh bit of Camberwell, South London. Her two brothers were killed in WWI. After that her father died, leaving them short of cash, they had to let their servants go, and Frances has taken on all aspects of running the house, being careful to keep up appearances for her mother’s sake. However, austerity is not enough, and reluctantly they decide to take in lodgers. Enter a young couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, who will take the upstairs rooms (excepting Frances’ bedroom). They will have to share the outside lav though.  After their visit to view, Frances is discussing them with her mother:

‘One good thing, I suppose, about their being so young: they’ve only his parents to compare us with. They won’t know that we really haven’t a clue what we’re doing. So long as we act the part of landladies with enough gusto, then landladies is what we will be.’
Her mother looked pained. ‘How baldly you put it! you might be Mrs Seaview, of Worthing.’
‘Well, there’s no shame in being a landlady; not these days. I for one aim to enjoy landladying.’
‘If you would only stop saying the word.’

And so it is that upper middle class Frances and her mother, become landladies to a working class couple on their way up. Quite a reversal.

Frances initially finds it difficult having a man in the house again, with his ‘jaunty whistling’ and ‘loud masculine sneezes’.  Len also has a habit of going out into the yard for a fag late in the evening, and stopping to talk to Frances on his way back through the kitchen.  He asks her about the garden and volunteers to help, telling her about his guvnor’s garden:

‘He even has cucumbers in a frame. Beauties, they are – this long!’ He held his hands apart, to show her. ‘Ever thought of cucumbers, Miss Wray?’
‘Well-‘
‘Growing them, I mean?’
Was there some sort of innuendo there? She could hardly believe that there was. But his gaze was lively, as it had been the night before, and , just as something about his manner then had discomposed her, so, now, she had the feeling that he was poking fun at her, perhaps attempting to make her blush.

Everyone settles down; Lilian puts her personal touch on their rooms with shawls and ornaments; Len goes out to work. Lilian gives Frances the rent money, and Mrs Wray gets hopeful about it:

‘I did just wonder, Frances, whether we mightn’t be able to afford a servant again.’

It is clear that there are tensions in Lil and Len’s relationship. This is obvious to Frances, who had begun to strike up a friendship with her lodger.  Then, one day, Frances lets out her big secret – she’d had a relationship with another woman, Chrissy, and was found out as the two of them had planned to set up home together. Far from scaring off Lilian, it switches something on in her and the pair become intimate, starting a secret affair.  Things soon come to a head though. It’s deeply stressful for all concerned in every which way. What happens next?  There are shocks and twists aplenty, but I’m not going to get more spoilery here. If you have read the book though, the discussion at Shiny Book Club does go into detail.

I thought that Waters nailed the situation of Frances and her mother in their enforced austerity perfectly. Mrs Wray was obviously perpetually mortified by it, and hated the idea that anyone might spot Frances cleaning the front doorstep or the like. Frances is hemmed in by it all, but throws herself into the chores to escape from her mother, except on those days she has trips into London to see her old flame Christina which is her only real relief from drudgery and the spinster life she has had to settle for.

Lilian at first appears flighty with Frances the dominant one, but as the novel progresses there is rather a role reversal. Frances falls so hard for Lilian it unnerves her, whereas Lilian gets strength from her large supportive family (who never find out all the secrets). Frances has been hardened by what happened before and regrets losing Christina, she thinks she’ll never find another lover and can’t believe it when Lilian reciprocates.  Their secret relationship is so intense and claustrophobic. At the beginning of the novel I really felt for Frances; I know she couldn’t help it, but the pressure she put on Lilian made me feel less for her and more for her partner in crime.

Topping just  over 560 pages in hardback, I did find this novel hard to put down, reading it in three long sessions. Once you get towards the closing stages, there is no way you’ll want to stop reading if you don’t have to, it’s so intense and gripping.  It feels very real in its post-WWI world (as The Night Watch did with WWII). It’s the 1920s, but there’s not a flapper in sight, this is suburban South London (and believe me it doesn’t change much!)

The Night Watch
remains my favourite Waters novel, but I preferred The Paying Guests to the slower-burning The Little Stranger (review here). The Paying Guests pulls you into its world right from the start. It is a complex morality tale that I enjoyed reading very much.

See also Harriet’s review and Simon’s at Vulpes Libris.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Virago, paperback, 608 pages.

Capturing her memories…

Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher

shockaholicIn my review of Fisher’s previous slim volume of anecdotal memoir, Wishful Drinking, I wished she would write a full memoir a couple of years down the line. Instead, she has done more of the same, but you know what, I don’t care that it’s not the full memoir I previously craved, I loved being back in her company, however briefly.

In this volume she tells us about half a dozen episodes in her eventful life, all recounted with her characteristic tell-it-like-it-was wit, very self-deprecating humour and plenty of insight and true emotion too.

At the end of the introduction, she neatly paraphrases Proust to nail the flavour of the following pages:

So, before I forget, what follows is a sort of anecdotal memoir of a potentially more than partial amnesiac. Remembrances of things in the process of passing.

As you might guess from the title, she starts with an account of what it’s like to undergo ECT (Electro Convulsive Therapy), which is often seen as a treatment of last resort and portrayed in the media often as if it had never moved on from the original violent fitting effects when it was first devised.  Now carried out under mild anaesthesia, it takes just minutes. It blows away many of the effects of depression and mania, but at the cost of memory – mostly recent memory and an inability to form new memories for a short period.

Another thing is that I find myself forgetting movies and books, some of which I only recently enjoyed, which, if you think about it, is really not that bad, because now I can be entertained by them all over again. And grudges? How can you hold on to something you don’t remember having to begin with!

Having got the pretext of ECT out of the way, we dive into the episodes, starting with a story about briefly dating a senator in the mid-80s and holding her own at dinner against a usually dominating Ted Kennedy who continually tried to quiz her about sex – this was hilarious.

The next story tells of what you’d think of as an unlikely friendship with the ‘otherly’ Michael Jackson. However, both being addicts from dysfunctional families, they had a unique understanding and she personally witnessed him as a great father to his own children. Jackson had some redeeming features for her, despite his alleged inappropriate friendships with kids and the consequences; she gives her take on that, which is fascinating.

Another of Michael’s friends was of course, Elizabeth Taylor. She was Fisher’s step-mother for some years, Eddie Fisher having dumped Debbie Reynolds for Taylor, who later ran off with Richard Burton.  Taylor, famously loved to receive jewelry (Fisher’s spelling) and Michael Jackson obliged.  However Fisher recalls some other jewelry:

I remember coming into her dressing room one time and she was wearing this diamond as big as a doorknob that she always wore – the famous diamond Burton had given her. ‘What did you do to get that?’ I asked her. And she smiled sweetly and softly said, ‘I was loved.’

Presumably, this was Taylor’s ring containing the Krupp diamond (33+ carats) bought for her by Burton in 1968.

Taylor and Fisher had always had a distinctly frosty relationship until one day at an Easter Egg hunt at her ranch, Taylor pushed Fisher into the swimming pool for making fun of her in a speech at an AIDS benefit. This finally broke the ice, and Fisher has the photographs of the event to prove it.

Running through this collection of anecdotes though are memories of her father who died in 2010. Largely absent during her childhood, they would later get together when his star began to fade and she was turbulently married to Paul Simon:

Eventually (and/or after a year) my father moved to an apartment around the corner from Paul. And it was not too long after that that he began sneaking drugs to me.  This was when, like most fathers and daughters, we begain doing coke together. Our relationship had started with me longing for him to visit, eventually evolving into my being desperate for him to leave, setting finally and comfortably into us being drug buddies.

The final chapter is again about her father, but this time his last months, when addled by marijuana use and suffering dementia she became a carer, and she reflects how glad she was that they had managed to develop a relationship despite that difficult childhood.

Whereas Wishful Drinking was derived from her successful stageshow and sometimes came across as a performance on paper, Shockaholic is still just as wise-cracking but, tempered by the loss of her father, comes across as more thoughtful in tone. I do hope for more installments to read of Fisher’s fascinating life. (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
Shockaholicby Carrie Fisher (2011). Simon & Schuster 2013. Paperback, 176 pages.
Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher (2008).

 

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