Annabel's House of Books

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

Page 2 of 228

An epistolary debut novel

How You See Me by S.E. Craythorne

craythorneThis is the last of my reviews of books I finished reading in 2015; I thought I’d better get a few thoughts down before the memory of reading it fades too much.

As Susan said in a recent post, ‘I have a weakness for debuts’ – you never know what you’re going to get.  In How You See Me, we get that relative rarity – the epistolary novel, but done in the style of We Need to Talk About Kevin – we only get to read one side of the conversation.

Daniel Laird is the letter writer. He’s returning to his ailing father’s home in Norfolk to look after him. He’s not been there for nine years.  As the novel starts he is leaving Alice to set off on his journey home:

From the pillow next to yours 

[…] You’ll say I should have woken you, but there’s too much to say. Too much I haven’t said. A father and a sister. A whole life to explain. I’m sorry I’ve not told you about any of this before; we’ve had so little time together. I’ve probably lied to you. That’s habit. I lie to  everyone about my family. […]

Missing you already, my darling.

Your Daniel

At the start, the letters fall into two kinds. The first are love letters to Alice, whom we soon find out Daniel met at work – she was patient of his boss, Aubrey, a psychiatrist; Daniel is his receptionist/secretary. The second concern family matters and practicalities to his sister Mab in which he complains about Maggie the care-worker who pops in frequently, about the house, about his frail father – well he moans about everything to Mab really. Daniel also writes some letters to Aubrey. They obviously do not have a normal employee/boss relationship.

Daniel’s father was – is – a celebrated artist, a painter who went through a series of muses and models when Daniel was young. It’s a shock to Daniel to see him reduced to a husk of his former self, but it does give Daniel a sort of power over him that he never had before. ‘…like it or not, I’m home.’ he says as he settles into a life of domesticity and walking the dog.

It is the discovery of a hidden cache of his father’s paintings that provides the turning point in this drama, and the faint air of unease starts to take a more sinister tone. Daniel had left home for a reason, and the exhibition planned of the new paintings brings all the hidden tensions to the surface. Daniel has been hiding from himself. Aubrey reinforced that, and Mab – well she hides behind her masks (she’s an artist too). We finally begin to see Daniel as everyone else does when events unravel his life.

I don’t know what it is about books about artists, but their oft-tortured and free-loving souls make for great drama. The descriptions of Daniel’s father in his productive years rather reminds me of the randy Uncle Ralph in Bethan Roberts’s child abduction drama Mother Island (which I reviewed here). As for Mab’s masks – the sheer idea of interpretive dance in masks just makes me squirm (almost as much as the singer Sia with her strange dancers).

The one relief we get is when Daniel takes his father on a holiday to the coast – it seems to refresh Daniel, but the effect is short-lived. Otherwise the tension and unease creeps steadily upwards to the shocking climax.  This portrait of a broken mind makes for a powerful debut well worth reading. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.

S E Craythorne, How You See Me (Myriad editions, August 2015) paperback, 190 pages.

Shiny New Books Issue 8

SNB logo tinyI can’t believe that when our next issue of Shiny New Books comes out at the beginning of April, we will have been going for two whole years! The last issue of our second year is out today and features the winning poem in the first Shiny Poetry  Competition – it’s lovely.

Naturally, you’ll find a handful of reviews by yours truly. I’ll be linking to them over coming weeks, but today I’m highlighting a YA novel for older teens that breaks taboos and made me cry…

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

asking-for-it-197x300The second novel from O’Neill follows the story of Emma, a beautiful eighteen year old schoolgirl, who has to live with the consequences of a party which went wrong and she doesn’t remember what happened. Of course it affects far more people than just Emma, and O’Neill bravely explores many taboo areas that few authors would dare to go near. I wept. This novel is an important one. Although 16+ girls may be its primary audience, it deserves a far wider audience, especially parents of girls. This book really raises the bar for YA novels.

Read my full review here.

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Source: Own copy

Louise O’Neill, Asking for it (Quercus, 2015) Hardback, 352 pages.

Dare I read this book?

There are few things guaranteed to put fear into a book-hoarder lover’s life than the idea of getting rid of some books, and other stuff of course.  My mind is starting to turn to the idea of downsizing – at some undecided point in the future – not now, but my house is so full of ‘stuff’ that I will need to jettison a lot to fit into somewhere smaller.  Why not get started now, so it’s not such a shock later I thought, and I ordered a copy of Marie Kondo’s best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying.

kondoOf course, reading it now would mean making an (little) exception to the TBR Dare, but that’s OK – the TBR Dare is not prescriptive.

The big question is: If I do read it, dare I put Kondo’s method into practice?  The blurb says:

‘ The key to successful tidying is tackling your home in the correct order, keeping only what you really love and doing it all at once.’

If I’m brave enough, that’d take the entire Easter holidays and need of a skip going by the amount of clutter I own.  Just flicking through the contents pages, even in the first section I can see that she tackles some essential home truths.

Tidy a little a day and you’ll be tidying forever.

Storage experts are hoarders.

marie-kondo-organizing-tips-spark-joy-02Her method uses the concept of ‘Spark Joy’ – each item you own should spark joy in you.  If everything you own does this you’ll be happier. Her follow-up book ‘Spark Joy’ is an illustrated continuation. She suggests sorting out clothes first, then books… uh-oh – I might never get to my ‘Komono’ category.

While I can see the benefits of doing a top to toe clear-out all at once, making it a practical option is more of a challenge.

I’m not convinced … yet.

I am going to have a TBR dare blip and read the book though, because there’s something very attractive about her ideas, and this new Japanese way of doing things. Feng shui does get a brief mention and some of its principles are in harmony with Kondo’s method, but she’s thankfully not prescribing its wackier aspects.  She’s also very young – but seems to come across as wise beyond her years.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s in my personality to be fanatically neat; I would like to be tidier and hang on to less stuff I don’t need though.  When it comes down to it, I do really enjoy a regular good clear-out. It makes you feel really good, however often you do it.  Just tackling my utensils drawer on its own the other weekend did ‘spark joy’!

Wouldn’t doing the full Kondo, doing it all at once, remove all those moments of gratification through repeated spring-cleaning urges, which, through only tidying ‘a little a day’ can be prolonged forever?  Ha ha!  I’m such a skeptic.  One big truth remains though: If I am to ever downsize, I will need to do this!

Have you tried any decluttering techniques?  Did they work?  

Lots of great books to look forward to

I was delighted to be invited to the Faber Spring Launch Party, which was held at a fabulous venue – the crypt on the green of St James Church in Clerkenwell – last night. It was also fantastic to meet up with old friends in Kim, Eric, Simon S and @flossieteacake, and talk to some other lovely people like the ladies from the Sevenoaks Bookshop who shared our table. Faber had laid on twelve authors to talk to us plus nibbles from a thirteenth, chef Oliver Rowe, who let his food do his talking.

DSC_0200

Back row, left to right:

  • Simon Armitage, who talked and read from Pearl (May) – his new translation of a medieval poem thought to be by the same author as Sir Gawain & the Green Knight – ‘Nothing like medieval poetry to get the party started,’ he quipped.  Irresistible!
  • Mick Jackson, who read from Yuki Chan in Bronte Country (out today). Yuki is over visiting her sister, but is also retracing her mother’s footsteps from ten years previously. Slightly odd, but I’m keen to read this one.
  • Tim Baker – an Australian living in France, who has written a thriller about a kidnapping, the assassination of JFK and a hitman on the trail of a secret cabal. Fever City is out today.
  • Francis Spufford – Golden Hill (June) is the first novel from the acclaimed non-fiction writer of The Child that Books Built and Red Plenty.  It covers eleven weeks in 18th century New York – when it was just a little town, and he described it as Tom Jones in New York with a bit of Tristram Shandy. Looking forward to this book.
  • Francesca Kay – The Long Room (out now) sounds wonderful. Her protagonist is a listener for the secret service. The description of this book reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola’s first film The Conversation with Gene Hackman – but could be entirely different! It’s a spy novel – I want to read it.
  • Oliver Rowe – of the delicious nibbles. His book Food for All Seasons is out in June.
  • Patrick Kingsley – The New Odyssey – the Story of the European Refugee Crisis (June). Kingsley is the Guardian’s ‘Migration Correspondent’; he travelled following the trails of migrants through 17 countries, trying to find out all about them, how and why they do it, who is involved – powerful reportage.

Front row, left to right:

  • brixLouise Doughty, following on from the huge success of Apple Tree Yard, Black Water (June) is entirely different, but its genesis came in the same way through a powerful image that came to her head which she then had to explain in a story.
  • Brix Smith Start – I have to admit shameful ignorance of Manchester band, The Fall, but LA-born Brix was their guitarist and wife of Mark E. Smith for ten years, moving on to shack up with Nige Kennedy and his band for a while, reinventing herself as a fashion stylist (which is where I first encountered her on TV with Gok Wan). This girl has lived rock ‘n’ roll – and I wanna read about it (so does Kim)! The Rise The Fall and the Rise is out in May.
  • Alwyn Hamilton – the only author of a YA book there, Alwyn passionately wanted to write an adventure story involving a girl who dressed up as a boy and didn’t play by the rules. Rebel of the Sands sounds fun. Out on Feb 1, it’s the first part of a trilogy.
  • Sara Pascoe – you may have seen Sara on Mock the Week – now she’s writing a book. How a Woman is Made is a tour of the female body in all its aspects and glory. She told a funny story about how glow-worms are in danger of extinction as the males are wasting their glow-worm seed on streetlamps…  (Coming(!) in May).
  • Harry Parker – Anatomy of a Soldier (March).You couldn’t help but do a double-take when Harry gingerly climbed up onto the stage on his two prosthetic legs. His debut novel is about the rehabilitation of a soldier caught in an IED blast, told from the PoV of 45 different narrators – including inanimate objects like his mother’s red handbag and the surgeon’s bone-saw. Sounds like a war classic in the making.
  • Luke Harding – A Very Expensive Poison (March). This is one I really want to read (and so does Kim). Harding was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, and his latest book is billed as the definitive inside story of the life and death of Alexander Litvinenko – including interviews with the suspects, and Litvinenko himself three days before he died.

So many books I want to read from that list. Needless to say, I went home with a bag stuffed full, including several mentioned above and a couple of others. A huge thank you to Faber.

The stress of selling your home when your dog is sick…

Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment

heroicOriginally published in 2009 and brought to the UK last year by Pushkin Press, Heroic Measures is a tale about one weekend in the life of an older couple and their beloved dachshund Dorothy.

Ruth and Alex Cohen have lived for 45 years in a co-op, a ‘five-flight walk-up in the East Village’. Bought for five grand, they’ve reluctantly put the apartment on the market for $999,000, but the moment they sign the realtor’s contract, the headiness of being a millionaire vanishes. Why are they moving out of the city?  ‘She and Alex, never mind Dorothy, would be lost anywhere but New York,’ muses Ruth as they finish tidying the flat for the open house tomorrow. Meanwhile:

At twelve, eating is Dorothy’s last great pleasure. Her dachshund face, mostly snout, is now completely white, whiter even than Alex’s. She is missing two canines and three back molars. At hr withers she stands eight inches tall, weighs ten pounds, two ounces. She tried to get up, but nothing happens. Her hind legs have turned to ice, burning ice. Without even knowing that she’s doing it, she relieves herself on the toes. She only know that she has done so because of the odor; it smells sour and sick. She lets loose a shrill yelp.

The animal hospital is way uptown and they get into a taxi, only to get trapped in terrible gridlock – a tanker has jackknifed in the Midtown tunnel and the Muslim driver has fled – there’s already talk of it being a terrorist plot. Finally they get to the hospital to find that Dorothy has a ruptured disc – it’s going to be expensive. Eventually they get back home, and are contemplating leaving the final clearing up until the morning. With the drama of the tunnel, Alex says ‘I don’t think anyone’s going house hunting tomorrow.’  The phone rings – it’s Lily:

‘What about the tunnel?’ she asks Lily.
‘I closed on a Tribeca loft the day after Nine Eleven. We might not get the hordes we want, but we’ll get the serious ones, and that will work in our favor.’
Ruth hangs up. ‘Lily’s bringing a couple by at eight-thirty. The house sale is on.’

The next day Alex and Ruth have to put up with all the house-hunters – one lays on their bed for a full twenty minutes, another brings a huge dog, and all the while, they’re waiting for news from the hospital about Dorothy.

This is mostly a gentle comedy – with occasional bite. Ruth and Alex may be in their seventies, but Alex – an artist is still working (on an illuminated manuscript based on his FBI file!)  They alternatively bicker and support each other through all the trials of the bidding war that starts on the flat, but Ruth’s mind is nearly always elsewhere with Dorothy.  They’re loveable and crotchety; Ruth frets, Alex wise-cracks – Ciment portrays them well without too much sentimentality. For me, however, the star of this charming novel was Dorothy, who has her own very real perception of everything that’s happening to her.  The ‘terrorist-or-not’ sub-plot does add extra stress to their weekend, but it also feels a little too much at times – although, upon reflection, it allows some smart comment on unamerican activities and involves yet more dogs.

The novel was filmed as Ruth & Alex (called Five Flights Up in the US) and released in 2014, starring Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman (with Cynthia Nixon as Lily the estate agent). They don’t fit my vision of the couple at all – I would have cast F Murray Abraham and (maybe) Sally Field if remaining true to the novel – but I’ve not seen the film.

The novel was a light and entertaining read in the company of Ruth, Alex and Dorothy. I enjoyed it a lot. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you.

Jill Ciment, Heroic Measures (Pushkin Press, 2015). Paperback, 208 pages.

“I am a wolf man, who despises the striving of common men”

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse

steppenwolfWe often like to read something classic over Christmas for book group, but were a little uninspired when picking back in November. We resorted to reading a list of nobel prize-winners and Herman Hesse came up – we discounted Siddhartha as too mystical and The Glass Bead Game as too long, which led us to Steppenwolf – cue chorus of ‘Born to be Wild‘.  Published in 1927, and in first English translation two years later, what an odd book it is…

It begins with an ‘Editor’s Preface’ in which an unnamed narrator introduces the surviving notebooks of Harry Haller, a man nearing fifty years old who takes rooms in the house owned by the narrator’s aunt.  He tells us how Haller styles himself as ‘an old Steppenwolf’ (wolf of the Steppes), and even though the aunt and her house is rather bourgeois, he is won over as soon as he enters, ‘My, it does smell good here.’ The narrator carries on to tell us the little he had found out about Haller, and having read his papers entices us by saying:

I had no possible means of checking how far the experiences recounted by Haller in this manuscript corresponded to reality. That they are for the most part imaginative fictions, I don’t doubt, but not in the sense of stories arbitrarily invented. (p21)

Where Haller’s notebooks are concerned, these bizarre, partly pathological, partly beautiful fantasies rich in ideas, I’m bound to say that if they had chanced to come into my possession without my knowing their author, I would certainly have thrown them away in indignation. (p22)

We move on to read Haller’s notebooks which are prefaced with the title ‘For mad people only’. Within a few pages, whilst out walking he has discovered a building with a sign saying ‘Magic Theatre Admission Not For Everyone’, but the door is shut.  It will take around a hundred pages of intense navel-gazing before we get to see inside.  During that time, I considered giving up reading the book several times, especially when we got to an inserted section comprising the text of a tract – a mysterious booklet given to Haller – which is all about him!  It explores the perceived duality of his personality, a mirror in which to see himself.  The band Hawkwind wrote a song about Steppenwolf, (I also used its lyrics in this post’s title – see in full here) which sums it up neatly thus:

I am a man-wolf, the man in me would kill the wolf
I am a wolf man, the wolf in me would eat the man
I am a wolf man, who despises the striving of common men

By Dave Brock and Robert Newton Calvert (1976)

Haller resolves to commit suicide when he reaches fifty. He meets an old friend, now a professor, but they fall out – the academic critises Harry’s writing, Harry is disappointed at his friend’s new nationalism and picks fault with a romantic portrait of Goethe beloved by the academic’s wife. Leaving, he is so scared of going home and ending up killing himself early, he ends up in a dance hall – where everything changes when he meets Hermione, who says she is going to give him orders which he’ll carry out and in doing that she’ll make him fall in love with her.

When you are in love with me I shall give you my final order, and you’ll obey, which will be a good thing for you and for me. (p119)

Harry is drawn into Hermione’s world, ordered to learn how to dance, something he previously considered beneath him, but soon finds enabling. Her friends Pablo (who is reminiscent of the MC in Cabaret) and Marie, whom she instructs Haller to go out with, are always around and Hermione herself remains tantalisingly beyond reach – at one stage, appearing dressed up as a man. The final act will (at last) result in a visit to the Magical Theatre – where an opiated Haller will go on a really wild trip and find out Hermione’s final order. This last section was truly mad, deserving of the promise dangled back at the beginning of the book, and you can see why Timothy Leary et al made it a trippy cult classic in the 1960s.

I read the recent 2012 translation by David Horrocks, which has a superb afterword by the translator which explores some of the major themes in the book. Written when Hesse himself was approaching fifty and in the grip of a severe mid-life crisis, it’s clearly autobiographical – they share initials, and Horrocks tells us that Hesse had even taken some dancing lessons too.

What was also fascinating was to discover that Hesse intended Steppenwolf’s structure to resemble a sonata or fugue. Although never substantiated in detail, music does come into the narrative in various forms all the way through so this is a nice conceit, and you could say that some of the rather philosophical and repetitive themes in the first half in particular are like the subjects of a fugue which return again throughout the piece!

I imagine that anyone who knows more than me about Germany in the 1920s, the aftermath of WWI, the Weimar republic and the stirrings of new nationalism that led eventually to WWII, will find more implied criticisms of these times in Hesse’s writing, not to mention his general for and against attitude towards what you could call the discrete charm of the Bourgeoisie (I nicked that from Bunuel’s film).

None of our book group enjoyed the book as such – one even read it in German – but we did find much to discuss, and those of us who did read to the end felt a bit smug that we finally found the action and were rewarded for getting that far! This novel is interesting / tedious / downright mad / frustrating / schizophrenic / repetitive / insert word here – all of these and more. (6/10)

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Source: Own Copy.

Herman Hesse, Steppenwolf (Penguin Modern Classics, 2012), paperback, 272 pages.

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