Annabel's House of Books

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

Tag: Art (page 1 of 6)

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.

A little more Shiny Linkiness

There are two books I reviewed for the latest issue of Shiny that I’ve yet to tell you about:

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

house-of-shattered-wingsThis was the first book I’ve read by the Franco-Vietnamese author – but won’t be the last. It’s an urban fantasy set in contemporary Paris during the aftermath of the Great Magician’s War. But you won’t recognise this version of Paris as a modern city – it’s pure Gothic, with a crumbling Paris ruled over by several powerful houses led by magicians. Politics meets a murder mystery with fallen angels, mythology and plenty of magic in a novel that has some brilliant world-building. Imagine a modern version of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell set in Paris with angels and you’d be halfway there… (8.5/10)

Read my full review here: My Shiny Review.

See also:  Sakura’s Q&A with the author and review here.

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Mythology by Christopher Dell

mythology-cover-285x300Subtitled ‘An Illustrated Journey Into Our Imagined Worlds’, this softback edition from art specialists Thames & Hudson is precisely that. It concentrates on images from all over the world grouped by theme. The juxtapositions of pictures, often from different continents, on the same spreads just shows how the central mythologic themes that preoccupy us are the same the whole world over. As you’d expect from a Thames & Hudson art book, the pictures are sublime and the book beautifully produced. They are accompanied by just enough text to put them into context and explain their origins. An ideal Christmas present! (

Read my full review here: My Shiny Review.

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A Dance to the Music of Time 3: The Acceptance World

Dancing Powell

The Acceptance World

Dance 3 Acceptance World
We come to the third volume in Anthony Powell’s series – the last of the ‘Spring’ books. (If you’d like to catch up with volumes one and two, click accordingly.)

The Acceptance World begins with Nick Jenkins meeting his Uncle Giles at a hotel for tea. There he is introduced to Mrs Erdleigh who tells their fortunes, saying to Nick that she’ll meet him again in a year – strange company for his Uncle Giles!

At work, Jenkins is publishing a book on a noted painter of political portraits and businessmen and has approached St.John Clarke (apparently based upon John Galsworthy) to write the introduction. One of his old college contemporaries had been Clarke’s secretary, but Jenkins finds he has been replaced by on Quiggin – who has, it appears, steered Clarke in a different political direction.  Jenkins discusses Clarke’s situation being under the thumb of his new secretary with his friend Barnby:

‘I don’t think St.John Clark is interested in either sex,’ said Barnby. ‘He fell in love with himself at first sight and it is a passion to which he has always remained faithful.’

Some time later, Jenkins meets his old school-friend Peter Templer again and is invited to join them for a weekend.

That we had ceased to meet fairly regularly was due no doubt to some extent to Templer’s chronic inability – as our housemaster Le Bas would have said – to ‘keep up’ a friendship. He moved entirely within the orbit of events of the moment, looking neither forward nor backward. If we happened to run across each other, we arranged to do something together; not otherwise.

The particular excitement of this reuniting for Jenkins is that he finds out that Jean, Peter’s sister, appears to be separated from her husband DuPort. Jenkins had had a youthful passion for Jean, and this is reignited and they rekindle their affair.  In between all this there is a lot of complicated discussion about who’s seeing whom, who’s divorced whom and such shenanigans!

Jenkins is reunited with his old schoolfriends at his old housemaster’s dinner for old boys at the Ritz. Stringham is drunk and Widmerpool makes a very long and involved and very boring speech – during which Le Bas has a stroke! I shouldn’t cheer at other people’s misfortunes, but it was a great penultimate scene to bring Widmerpool back into play. He had been mentioned earlier, but hadn’t appeared until then.  It is Widmerpool who is moving from industry into the city and joining the ‘Acceptance World’.  I can hear you asking what that is – here is how Templer describes it to Nick:

‘If you have goods you want to sell to a firm in Bolivia, you probably do not touch your money in the ordinary way until the stuff arrives there. Certain houses, therefore, are prepared to ‘accept’ the debt. They will advance you the money on the strength of your reputation. It is all right when the going is good, but sooner or later you are tempted to plunge. Then there is an alteration in the value of the Bolivian exchange, or a revolution, or perhaps the firm just goes bust – and you find yourself stung. That is, if you guess wrong.’

Any clearer?  I assume they refer to the futures and/or bond markets…

There are other forms of acceptance at work in this novel too. Nick, who does have to work for a living, is becoming accepted in all the walks of society in which he moves. He seems more mature than most of his friends, and while not immune to love affairs, is not the type to swap partners that way most of the others seem to do with monotonous regularity.  For his capricious upper class  friends, marriage and divorce don’t seem to mean a lot.  Nick, as Widmerpool has too, has resisted marriage – how long can they last as bachelors?  What will happen to Peter and Jean?

Widmerpool’s appearance aside, volume three was a lot more serious than the first two, and I missed the comedy he brings with him. I know I have a Widmerpool-fest to come in the next novel – the first of the ‘Summer’ books.  I’m looking forward to April’s Powell episode. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own Copy.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
The Acceptance World: Vol 3 (Dance to the Music of Time 03) by Anthony Powell (1955), approx 224 pages.

A Dance to the Music of Time 2: A Buyer's Market

Dancing Powell

A Buyer’s Market

So we come to the second volume of Anthony Powell’s sequence of twelve novels. If you’d like to catch up with my summary of the first part follow the link to A Question of Upbringing.

It’s now the late 1920s and Jenkins is living and working in London for a publisher of art books. As the novel begins he reminisces in his narration about Mr Deacon, an ageing artist of middling reputation he had met in Paris:

Mr Deacon was grown-up still: I myself, on the other hand, had changed. There was still distance to travel, but I was on the way to drawing level with Mr Deacon, as a fellow grown-up, himself no longer a figment of memory from childhood, but visible proof that life had existed in much the same way before I had begun to any extent to take part; and would, without doubt, continue to prevail long after he and I had ceased to participate.

powell 2
The ensuing story is inspired by Jenkins’ memory of seeing a painting (just as Vol 1 began), this time an indifferent picture by Deacon, hung inconspicuously in the house of the Walpole-Wilsons, Jenkins’ hosts for a house-party. Jenkins is always a little in love with someone – this time, it’s Barbara Walpole-Wilson – but hidebound as he is by the rules of society, she is probably unattainable whereas her sister Eleanor would be. Powell, however, in a rare example of only using a few words instead of a hundred, has Barbara mordently describe her thus :

Barbara used to say: ‘Eleanor should never have been removed from the country. It is cruelty to animals.’

I’m sure that in time Nick will find the right girl for him. Having concentrated upon the old boys’ network in the first novel and making useful contacts to get one’s career kick-started, volume two is largely concerned with establishing oneself in society and finding a mate. Nick sounds out one of his dinner companions, Lady Anne Stepney, about her sister Peggy, whom his old school-friend Stringham had had a thing for:

‘As a matter of fact, Peggy hasn’t spoken of Charles Stringham for ages,’ she said.
She did not actually toss her head – as girls are sometimes said to do in books – but that would have been the gesture appropriate to the tone in which she made this comment.

Jenkins is so easily distracted by the fairer sex!

One seeming obstacle to his progress is his continued association with Widmerpool, who crops up all over the place like an eternal gooseberry, often getting in the way and making Jenkins wonder how he comes to be invited to these dos, and:

It suddenly struck me that after all these years of knowing him I still had no idea of Widmerpool’s Christian name.

Widmerpool will be subjected to several humiliations throughout the novel and laughed at by his companions; Nick to his credit, although ever the observer, doesn’t join in. Widmerpool seems (at this stage anyway) doomed to fail in the romance stakes but we will find out that he is not without desires. He is, however, obviously useful in the business and government circles in which he works and is acquiring a solid reputation therein. Again, Widmerpool is the most intriguing character in the novel.

Many of the others from A Question of Upbringing pop in and out of the narrative from time to time. Sillery turns up at a decadent party; Uncle Giles gets a mention or two – including his abhorence of ‘champagne, beards and tiaras’, and Nick’s first love Jean will make an eventful reappearance – sparking in Nick a ‘sudden burst of sexual jealousy’.

In their twenties, life is one long social whirl for these Bright Young Things moving in the higher echelons of society – it really is a buyer’s market. Just imagine if the Tinder app had been around for this lot!

Again written in four long chapters echoing the seasons, A Buyer’s Market ends back with Mr Deacon bringing the year full circle, and finally – Jenkins finds out Widmerpool’s forename.

This time, knowing Powell’s style with it’s long convoluted sentences full of sub-clauses, I was able to jump into the text and enjoy it fully finding much more humour in particular. Having introduced us to the main characters at length in volume one, the narrative takes off launching us fully into their lives. I really enjoyed it – although the title of volume three, The Acceptance World, infers a seriousness to come – or is it just an initial settling down?  Back next month!  (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):

A Question Of Upbringing (Dance to the Music of Time 01)
A Buyer’s Market: Vol 2 (Dance to the Music of Time 02)

 

'I like a fresh bowl.'

Yes, it’s a quote from that late 1990s TV series Ally McBeal which was set in a Boston legal firm. I watched it religiously for most of its run. Partner John Cage was the chap who said it – he had many quirks including a remote control for his favourite toilet stall, which he’d pre-flush before going… I bring it up because it was the first thing that popped into my mind when I spotted this book at a book sale last year!

 

The Lady Who Liked Clean Rest Rooms by J.P. Donleavy

donleavy lady clean Donleavy is Irish-American; born in New York he moved to Ireland after WWII where, now aged 88, he still lives. The Ginger Man was his first novel, published in 1955, and he continued writing up until the late 1990s. He wrote several plays in his early career in addition to his novels and occasional non-fiction.

I have The Ginger Man and A Fairytale of New York (1973) on my shelves but, despite them being broadly classed as comedies, I worried that they might be slightly challenging to read. This short, late novel from 1995 with its arresting title thus seemed a perfect compromise as a good introduction to the man and his writing.

Meet Jocelyn – a fit, fortyish divorcée living in Scarsdale, a prosperous suburb of New York City. Jocelyn got the big house and a chunk of cash from the settlement but is rattling around in this money pit and slowly going mad.

…she got so drunk she found herself sitting at midnight with a loaded shotgun across her lap, after she thought she heard funny noises outside around the house. Then watching a bunch of glad facing so called celebrities spout their bullshit on a T.V. talk show and remembering that once someone told her how, when having quaffed many a dram, they turned off T.V. sets in the remote highlands of Scotland, she clicked off the safety, aimed the Purdey at mid-screen and let off the no. 4 cartridges in both barrels. And she said to herself over and over again as the sparks and flames erupted from the smoke.
‘Revenge is what I want. Nothing but pure unadulterated revenge. But my mother brought me up to be a lady.’

Jocelyn’s family harks back to the Mayflower, she went to Bryn Mawr – but since the divorce, her friends have melted away and her children don’t talk to her, she has no help any more. She cashes in the big house, but bad financial advice loses her her capital. She moves again into a tiny apartment in Yonkers (not Scarsdale – eek!), tries waitressing and finds that her fine palate is not suited to serving uneducated ones. She can’t find another job, so she wonders if she can get a man – maybe one of her old flames would pay her for it!

The one thing that keeps Jocelyn sane are her regular forays to the big art galleries in Manhattan. The only problem with being out though is the need to pee – and Jocelyn, like her South Carolina grandmother taught her, “My dear, if you really have to, only clean, very clean rest rooms will do”, and there aren’t many around in the businesses and big hotels that will tolerate regular non-resident visitors. But one day she finds the perfect rest room in a funeral home and has to pretend to be at a viewing …

I won’t deny that this text was an easy read – I so nearly let it bog me down, but persevered as it was only 100 pages or so! Donleavy’s sentence structure can be very convoluted in its clauses, and he ignores grammatical convention a lot of the time. His almost stream of consciousness style of writing, all in the present tense, felt more like the story had been written in the 1960s than the 90s, and it frequently obscured the laughs at first which did become apparent on closer reading – for underneath it all was a funny little plot, although it is a rather sad book.

It was surprisingly vulgar in places and at first I wondered how Jocelyn could stoop so low, but as we all know – social standing is no measure of bad behaviour, and what those Bryn Mawr girls got up to!… Despite her demotion from socialite to lonely mad cat-lady-type, I didn’t like Jocelyn at all and I wasn’t entirely convinced by her characterisation either.

This book is a definite Marmite one – some readers will love it and others will hate it. The experience reminded me of reading Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard as similarly challenging stylistically; I appreciated both, but didn’t like either particularly. (6/10)

Are all Donleavy’s books like this?
Should I go on to try one of his full length novels?

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms: The Chronicle of One of the Strangest Stories Ever to Be Rumoured about Around New York by J P Donleavy. Paperback.

The boy, the stolen painting and the Russian…

Just occasionally, I believe I can read minds – well in a Derren Brownish way – you see by my title of this post, I hope to have manipulated you into thinking you were getting a(nother) post on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; some of you will be thinking but Annabel’s already reviewed that, hasn’t she? They would be correct – see here.

Yes you would be right too – partially – for this post will concern The Goldfinch – but only in passing…  for on my shelves the other day I found a book which I had bought years ago, and its subject matter does concern a painting which gets stolen, and a Russian who is initially very much in the Boris mould. This book though was published in 2006, thus it predates The Goldfinch by years. Let me tell  you a bit about it…

 

The World to Come by Dara Horn

world to come

The story starts with Benjamin Ziskind, recently divorced. His parents are dead, but he’s still very close to his twin sister Sara who persuaded him to go to a singles cocktails event at the Jewish Museum in New York where there was an exhibition of paintings and drawings from ‘Marc Chagall’s Russian Years’. He was about to leave when he saw a painting and it stopped him in his tracks:

It was a painting of a street. The street was covered with snow, and lined by a short iron fence and little crooked buildings whose rooftops bent and reflected in all directions. Above the street, a man with a beard, pack, hat, and cane hovered in the sky, moving over the houses as if walking – unaware, in murky horizontal profile, that he was actually in flight. The painting was tiny, smaller than a piece of notebook paper. The label next to the painting offered its date as 1914 and its owner as a museum in Russia, titling it Study for “Over Vitebsk.” This intrigued Ben, who despite his mastery of trivia on all topics, including modern art, had never before known this particular painting’s name. All he knew was that it used to hang over the piano in the living room of his parents’ house.

Ben steals the painting. The story of whether he’ll get away with the theft or not forms half of the rest of the story, the other tells how the painting came into the family and what happened to it and them through the generations.

In the second chapter, we meet Boris Kulbak, an orphan in the Jewish Boy’s Colony in Malakhovka just outside Moscow. These orphans are lucky – they have school lessons, and the new art teacher takes a shine to Boris’s painting of a cave-like womb lined with bookcases and stalactites, and in it a fat, pink baby. The teacher offers to trade him one of his own paintings for Boris’s one – and this is how Boris (whose real name was Benjamin), met Marc Chagall, and Chagall’s friend, the author Der Nister (‘The Hidden One’). All are Jewish, but call each other Comrade. Boris/Ben chooses the tiny painting above in trade. All three will eventually escape from Russia making a life for themselves elsewhere, Chagall in Paris, Der Nister in Berlin – but as a Jew, he will struggle to get his stories published.

So back to Ben – who meets his own ‘Boris’ type – Leonid from Chernobyl – in High School. After a rough start, the two become friends and Leonid will marry Sara. The story continues to flit back and forth between the ages, and somewhere amongst all this we meet the other really important character – Rosalie, Ben’s mother – who becomes a famous author of philosophical fables based on Yiddish folktales. Meanwhile, back in the present day, Erica at the museum is onto Ben…

The story was inspired by the real-life theft of said Chagall painting (it was later recovered). Chagall did teach for a time at the orphanage too along with various poets and Yiddish writers, so Horn had a rich vein of historical fact to base this novel upon.

The straight-forward mystery part of this story works really well. She (yes, this Dara is a woman) weaves in and out of the time-line and we begin to see how the past fits into the present and how everything links together. So far, so ‘Goldfinch’ and I really enjoyed it.

Where it didn’t work well for me though were the parts where it went all mystical and dived deep into Yiddish fables of birth and rebirth – the world to come, what happens to souls when you die and all that. Also some of Der Nister’s and Rosalie’s tales were included and these did nothing for me either I’m afraid. Most of this occurred in the last third of the book, confusing matters quite a lot and not giving me the satisying ending I was craving.

The book had multiple rave reviews when it was first published – it was very different then to the literary mysteries that had come before. Now with post-Goldfinch hindsight, and I apologise to the author for comparing it all the way, despite its faults and length I preferred the straight story-telling of Tartt. The World to Come is not short either at just over 400 pages, and parts of it were brilliant – just not enough for me. (6.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The World to Come by Dara Horn (2000). Penguin paperback, 416 pages.

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