Tuesday, 24 March 2020

TO CALAIS, IN ORDINARY TIME by James Meek


I started reading this book in the glorious pre-pandemic days of one week ago when COVID was some Chinese problem.  It begins as a medieval quest, with an ill-assorted group of characters heading off to France.  How jolly!  There’s a pig herder and a kinky sex scene with King Edward’s mother. 

You hear a couple of things about the ‘qualm’ in France, but it is mostly dismissed as an invention of priests looking to get rich.  Then villages start to be empty, pits start to be found, and the first of the merry band die, and you realize that in fact this novel is not a story of a fun roadtrip but in fact an evocation of what is was like to see the Black Death take down England.  In almost exactly parallel time in real life COVID came to Italy and the UK went into lockdown. 

I considered stopping reading but decided to keep going to see what lessons could be learnt.  What I mostly learnt was THANK GOD FOR THE GERM THEORY OF DISEASE. These poor people are just busy fooling around with bunches of flowers and amulets.  

In a ballsy move this author decided to write his medieavel novel in medieval language.  Incredibly, it works.  And more than works, it is almost half the appeal.  The characters are from varied backgrounds and all speak different kinds of language.  Here’s a wealthy lady about her servant:  
“It’s Cotswold,” she tells Pogge. “It’s Outen Green. As if no French never touched their tongues. I ne know myself sometimes what they mean. They say steven in place of voice, and shrift and housel for confession and absolution, and bead for prayer.”

These little snippets give a sense
 Ness’s deaf eldmother, Gert, who when she was young had seen the king ride by at a hunt like a giant, on a white horse, with gold stars on the harness, sat and span by the backdoor.
 And
 He told me truelove things, and made me laugh, and I would kiss him; but to kiss him were wrong.  And it was like to when I was a little girl.  Mum made an apricot pie, and left me with it, and forbade me eat even one deal of it. But I ate one deal, because it needed me a sweet thing, and after I’d eaten one deal, I was already damned, and might as well eat the whole pie. 

The characters are very varied. One is a priest, who is busy shrifting and houseling like there is no tomorrow as people die.  They don’t know too much about hygiene but they are very big on confession.
 I said that in the circumstances I would confine myself to mortal sins.  He need only confess to sacrilege, homicide, adultery, fornication, false testimony, rapine, theft, pride, envy and avarice.                  
There was silence.  Hornstrake inquired if I had finished, as he had expected there to be at least one sin he had not committed.
I gestured to the furnace. . . I did not opt, I said, to compel a confession by reminding him of the alternative, but eternity was of a very long duration.
 
People often praise historical novels for being topical.  I can’t fault this one for that: it was super topical.  Topic being, pandemic.  However I think it was the non-pandemic, apricot pie parts I liked the best

Monday, 16 March 2020

HOW COULD SHE by Lauren Mechling




This is a depressing novel about the implosion of the publishing industry.  It’s like reading a book written about the social life of weavers just as the loom has been invented.

It’s not marketed as such.  In fact it is marketed as jolly chick lit, which it sort of tries to be, but chick lit in the context of the collapse of the chicks’ careers.  The author is a magazine writer, so I guess she is writing what she knows.

It’s about the friendship of three women after that friendship has died.  One of them moves to New York to try and find a job in publishing after a brutal breakup, and the other two variously pity and avoid her.  Here she is at her first cocktail party
“Hey,” she said, a desperate edge to her voice. “Are you going to the drinks thing?”“Where is it?”Something lifted within her. “I don’t know—I can ask Sunny?” “Nah.” Gus shook his head and looked down. “I’m supposed to meet someone in the city, actually.” He didn’t need to say any more. Another woman was written all over his face. Geraldine’s heart snapped. ….. She was humiliated, but also slightly relieved that he was leaving so she wouldn’t have to spend the drinks portion of the evening being rejected.


Ouch.  But where the book really shines is in the workplace:
All the staffers had gone to Ivy League schools and had the social skills of staplers.  They stared at her from their workstations and waited for her to talk, and she had to fill the air with references to her quirky travels and friends and obsessions.  There was something profoundly sad about these once-brilliant people who clung to their perches in corporate media as if there were a chance in hell the industry would take care of them.  Get out while you still can, Sunny wanted to tell them all, but she had to pretend to be operating under the same misapprehension as the rest of them. 


Overall it didn’t quite work out for me as a book – I couldn’t get up a head of steam to care about the characters, and their relationships. But I enjoyed the world.  Makes me feel like while I may not have made the perfect career choices, it could have been worse.


Sunday, 15 March 2020

MY MISSEPENT YOUTH by Meghan Daum


Apparently 2001 was really a long time ago.  Enjoy this extract from one of the essays in this book:
I am not what most people would call a “computer person.”  I have utterly no interest in chat rooms, news groups, or most Web sites.
Imagine a world where you get to not be a “computer person.”  Imagine a world where there is a concept called “computer person.”  Today that is just a person.  

These essays are about Daum’s experience of being in her late twenties and her life not having worked out as she planned.  (Whose life has worked out as planned?  Only the most extreme sociopaths, and maybe Taylor Swift, I would say). 

The extract is from the first essay, which is about the time she had an online romance, and is probably the best in the book.  This is not so much for thoughts on these "Web sites," about which she indeed has not much idea, but about what it is that makes romance so painful:
Of all the troubling details of this story, the one that bothers me most is the way I slurped up his attention like some kind of dying animal.  My addiction to PFSlider’s messages indicated a monstrous narcissism.  But it also revealed a subtler desire that I didn’t fully understand at the time. My need to experience an old-fashioned kind of courtship was stronger than I had ever imagined.  For the first time in my life, I was not involved in a protracted ‘hang-out’ that would lead to a quasi-romance. 
The other good essay was about her $70,000 debt.  This is largely from her choice to get a graduate education in that most remunerative of fields, creative writing
And even though I was having a great time and becoming a better writer, the truth was that the year I entered graduate school was the year I stopped making decisions that were appropriate for my situation and began making a rich person’s decisions. 
She blames this on knowing too many rich people.  I can vouch that this is a problem.
. . . my years at Vassar did more than expand my intellect.  They expanded my sense of entitlement so much that, by the end, I had no ability to separate myself from the many extremely wealthy people I encountered there.  . . . Self-entitlement is a quality that has gotten a  bad name for itself and yet, in my opinion, it’s one of the best things a student can get out of an education.  Much of my success and happiness is a direct result of it.  But self-entitlement has also contributed to my downfall, mostly because of my inability to recognize where ambition and chutzpah end and cold, hard cash begins. 
The rest of the essays I didn’t find particularly interesting or insightful, but I admire the ambition.  Thinking that in just writing about you own ordinary life you can come up with interesting insights is a bold move. That it paid off twice in ten essays is not terrible odds.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT by Stephen King


Full disclosure, I haven’t actually read very much Stephen King.  I may be minded to after reading this book. It’s charming and unpretentious guide to writing, mixed up with his life story, which is similarly charming and unpretentious. 

Interestingly for someone whose reputation is based on thrillers, he is not a big believer in plot as the engine of the story.  He says he tends to start with a setting, a theme, or a ‘what-if, and just go from there, trusting the plot with find him as he goes along.  He believes you should write the first draft fast
Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.  . . .If I write rapidly . . . I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always awaiting to settle in.
He advises when you begin at least 1000 words a day, with only one day off a week (no more; you’ll lose the urgency and immediacy of your story if you do.), though he does 2,000. He also has advice on re-writes
When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,; he said.  ‘When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story’
He even has an equation for this, being second draft = first draft – 10%

Also of interest was the story of his life.  He has always been a big reader, and even today he carries a book whereever he goes ("You just never know when you’ll want an escape hatch."). He grew up working class, and worked as a high school teacher, struggling to cover the bills for his wife and the two kids he had within five minutes of graduation. This is a tough time.
If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then.  I could see myself thirty years on, wearing the same shabby tweed coats with patches on the elbows, potbelly rolling over my Gap khakis from too much beer. . . . and in my desk drawer, six or seven unfinished manuscripts which I would take out and tinker with from time to time, usually when drunk.  If asked what I did in my spare time, I’d tell people I was writing a book . . . and of course I’d lie to myself, telling myself there was still time, it wasn’t too late, there were novelists who didn’t get started until they were fifty, hell, even sixty.  Probably plenty of them. 
Then he writes CARRIE.  He hopes he might get a $10,000 advance if it is accepted. He nearly blacks out when they offer him $400,0000.

He struggles with various substance abuse issues (he doesn’t really remember writing CUJO apparently), and has a hilarious take on a number of different writers, who:”largely formed our vision of an existential English-speaking wasteland where people have been cut from one another and live in an atmosphere of emotional strangulation and despair”  He doesn’t think it is co-incidental that they are mostly alcoholics.  This seems a pretty good description of the emotional environment of much of the twentieth century literature, and I never considered that is was just because all the big writers were even bigger drinkers.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

YOUTH by Tove Ditlevsen


This memoir makes you glad for the invention of the internet.  Tove is a working class teenage girl who is moving between various depressing and menial jobs while trying to become a poet.  (Poetry obviously being the most direct route out of poverty).  

Her problem is she knows no one who is even tangentially associated with poetry or publishing, so spends her time moping around cleaning floors by day and drinking soda pop with sweaty young men by night.    The whole time I just felt like screaming : just google it!  But it is unfortunately 1945. Tim Berners-Lee won’t even be born for another ten years.

The first book in the trilogy, CHILDHOOD, was a sadder book than this one, which covers her adolescence.  Unlike most people, she was happier as a teen than as a child.  She has some money of her own and no longer has to live with her parents.  Some would call this exploiting underage labour, she calls it freedom.  Eventually she manages to connect with someone who publishes a journal, and he publishes one of her poems.  She is so thrilled that the book ends with her considering marrying him, despite him being old and fat.

I hope she doesn’t do it, but I suspect she will.  The final book in the trilogy is called a Danish word which means both poison and marriage.  Signs are not good.  I’ll report back when I get there. 

Thursday, 5 March 2020

THE SECOND SLEEP by Robert Harris


I rarely read thrillers, but this came up on a lot of ‘best of 2019’ lists so I gave it a try.  It was fun.  The cover screams ‘book for boys,’ complete with stupid gold font for the author’s name, while the name itself sounds like it could have been created by some kind of generic best-selling-man-name generator. 

It begins with a priest going to bury another priest, who was a noted antiquarian.  You think at first it is set in the medieval period, SPOILER ALERT, but then when he gets to the dead priest’s house, he examines his collection of antiquities and you find it is lots of bits of plastic and glass, and one smooth and shiny box, with “on the back the ultimate symbol of the ancients’ hubris and blasphemy -  an apple with a bite taken out of it.”

BOOM! That’s right, it’s not the far past, it’s the far future, and my particular favourite far future, which is the post-apocalypse.  Side point, it’s interesting how no one ever calls the present day the pre-apocalypse, even though that’s clearly what it is. 

This setting is so fun that it triumphantly carries us through the book.  These future people are so mystified by  our leavings - the concrete pillars that supported motorways; an item which:
 opened like a book.  A pane of glass on one side; on the other, squares of black plastic, each inlaid with a letter of the alphabet. 
It makes you see the modern world in a whole new way. 

That said, I can’t say the book exactly went anywhere.  There was a lot of plot, but not to very much effect, and the author at the end clearly recognized his difficulties and without shame SPOILER ALERT randomly killed off everyone in a mudslide. That's what I call efficiency in novel writing.  

Monday, 2 March 2020

PRIESTDADDY by Patricia Lockwood


This memoir got a lot of good reviews, and it seemed like I would like it.  It tells about the author’s family, and in particular her father, who is a very eccentric Catholic priest..  Some of it was very funny.  Try this: 
(My father) seems overjoyed to see me.  Has he forgotten what I’m like?
And
When we came home later, my father was wearing his most transparent pair of boxer shorts, to show us he was angry, and drinking Bailey’s Irish cream liquer out of a miniature crystal glass, to show us his heart was broken
And
My father despises cats.  He believes them to be Democrats.  He considers them to be little mean hillary clintons covered all over with feminist legfur
Though I must comment: surely everyone knows cats are Republicans. Also, why the pretentious failure to capitalize Hillary Clinton’s name?

The book was sometimes beautiful.  Here is a night time drive in the American South: 
Through our rolled down windows we could hear the round rattle of the palms, crickets applauding, bullfrogs belching out their personal ads
But overall I found I couldn’t really connect with it.  This is partly a matter of style – it is so intensely poetic, my query would be, why not just write a poem?  Example:
Tomorrow, in that church, the songs I like best will flame out their brief lives, there and then gone, while the people hold soft and slumping candles under their chins and circles of cardboard catch the notes of hot wax.  They will return again next year.
I know some love this sort of thing, but for me, I am like: M'KAY.

But a more profound problem for me was what seemed to me a lack of heart.  Truly her family were strange and her path odd.  Her father chose to buy a guitar rather than pay for her college.  She ran away to marry a man she met on the internet back when the internet was just message boards.  And yet somehow I don’t feel I understand how she felt about any of it.  Everything is filtered through a distant 'amusement' which is no doubt where many people eventually get to with their families.  But for me, for a book so ‘revealing’ I didn’t think it revealed much of anything.  

TO CALAIS, IN ORDINARY TIME by James Meek

I started reading this book in the glorious pre-pandemic days of one week ago when COVID was some Chinese problem.   It begins as a medi...