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.  

Sunday, 23 February 2020

LADY OF QUALITY by Georgette Heyer

In this novel, Georgette Heyer largely dispenses with having a plot and just goes full on in enjoying her supporting characters.  And I enjoyed them too.  I bought this at the last minute when I made the discovery that books about solitary confinement (SOLITARY) and rape (THINGS WE DIDN'T TALK ABOUT WHEN I WAS A GIRL) were not the most ideal for when you are trying to relax on holiday.  You really shouldn't be lying in your hotel bed blubbing gently about systemic racism in Louisiana while on vacation. There's plenty of time to do that at home.

So I went to Heyer, as I so often do at such times, and she provided just the gentle cheering up I needed.  Apparently this was her last Regency romance, written in 1972, and I think it shows: she can hardly be bothered to go through the motions.  Oddly, I read her first, REGENCY BUCK (written 1935, and which invented the genre) the last time I was on holiday.  By the end, apparently she was only churning them out to pay the bills (mostly tax) while she worked on what she thought would be her 'magnum opus': a medieval trilogy covering the House of Lancaster from 1393 to 1435. 

She died before she could finish this, which she thought would be her most important and serious work.  Perhaps there's a lesson for us there, that we better get busy with what's important before it's too late.  Though on the other hand, apparently what she did manage to finish of the trilogy was totally panned when it came out. Her romances, trash though she clearly thought they were, solider on: REGENCY BUCK is nearly a hundred years old and still in print.  So perhaps there is still a lesson there, but it's going to take a little thought to find out what it is.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

I FEEL BAD ABOUT MY NECK by Nora Ephron


This book of essays contains some profound truths about the female experience.  Here for example is an extract from an essay about maintenance, specifically as it refers to your appearance:
We begin, I’m sorry to say, with hair.  I’m sorry to say it because the amount of maintenance involving hair is genuinely overwhelming.  Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death. 
She also has some wise words on aging, and particularly (and unfortunately) raised my consciousness about my neck:
Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth.  You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck . . . Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever’s writing it says it’s great to be old.  It’s great to be wise and sage and mellow; it’s great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life.  I can’t stand people who say things like this. What can they be thinking?  Don’t they have necks? 
She doesn’t enjoy aging, but, in what could be a watchword for us all at every birthday, her last essay is called ‘Consider The Alternative,’ which is good advice.

I laughed a lot in reading this book, but what surprised me is how much I thought about it afterwards.  It was full of interesting ideas.  Here she is on the end of her second marriage:
Why hadn’t I realized how much of what I thought of as love was simply my own highly developed gift for making lemonade?  What failure of imagination had caused me to forget that life was full of other posibilities, including the possibility that eventually I would fall in love again?
I love that – I often, when I feel trapped, ask myself what my ‘failure of imagination’ is that I think I have to stay where I am. Self-indulgently, let me end with her celebration reading.  It’s pretty much how I feel, and it’s rare I hear someone else express it.   I say rare: in my real life, with people I actually know, I guess it’s pretty much never. 
Reading is everything.  Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person.  Reading makes me smarter.  Reading gives me something to talk about later on.  Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself.  Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. 
x

A PERFECT SPY by John Le Carre


Some call this Le Carre’s greatest novel.  These people need to smoke less crack.  What they really mean is that it’s not ‘just’ a spy novel, but a spy novel with daddy issues.  Great, heaping masses of daddy issues.  This is Le Carre’s most autobiographical novel, and my god but it shows.
 
The story is about a British spy who suddenly disappears, leaving his wife and his posting in Vienna.  Very swiftly his employers begin to suspect he has been a double agent for decades.  The novel has three strands; first, an account of where the spy has disappeared to; second, the text of a long letter about his life he is writing to his son; and third, the search of his wife and his employers to find him.  Most of the novel is the letter, which is very much about his very tough childhood, with his conman father, and leads to the revelation of whether he is a double, a triple, or perhaps just a single agent.

To me it seemed kind of slow, with a bit too much repetition of the same themes: the loveless child, the danger of lying, etc.  I guess in that way we can see it was based in life.  In general one’s own life does seem to go on and on with the same rather boring themes you can’t seem to break free of.  I guess that’s what therapy is for.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

INDONESIA, ETC: EXPLORING THE IMPROBABLE NATION by Elizabeth Pisani


I read this book while on holiday in Indonesia, as I am too much of a good girl to enjoy a vacation without attempting to learn something about the country I am visiting.   What it made me feel is that even after three weeks in Indonesia I have barely been to Indonesia at all.

This is largely because it is enormous, the 4th most populous country on earth (Jakarta tweets more than any other city!), 5000km from end to end, and made up of thousands of islands, each of which have a very different way of living.  I enjoyed learning lots of stuff about Indonesia, and will even more enjoy telling people this stuff later at dinner parties so I look well informed. 

However what I found most interesting was not the social or economic history but the author’s travel itself.  She tries to say with ordinary Indonesians everywhere.  Indonesia is not  a very wealth country, so  most of those people are quite poor.  She spends a good amount of time telling you about individuals and their personal lives, and I can’t think when else I have read a book that genuinely tries to cross the class gap.  At first I was rather suspicious of this effort, as it could very easily turn into that creepy ‘poverty tourism’ of some township tours, but she is herself aware of the danger of becoming "one of those slightly earnest foreigners who has gone native."  At some point she has a melt down, and after that I liked her much better:
I closed my door and suddenly seven months of staying in damp, windowless flea-pits, or being woken at four by the mosque, five by the chickens and six by the school kids, seven months of defending my childlessness, being asked why I didn’t have any friends. . . seven months in a world without loo paper, alcohol or English conversation, seven months of wearing the same six pairs of knickers, . . . of getting over foot rot only to come out in a mystery rash, . . . seven months of trying to fit into a world that was, quite simply, not my world. .
She bursts into tears and then pulls herself together (as she needed to go and see the crocodile shaman), but after this point I realized that she was trying to do something in this book beyond an ordinary travelogue.  Or perhaps that’s just it, she is trying to do a travelogue of the ordinary. I’ve never read anything quite like it. 

Friday, 7 February 2020

CHILDHOOD by Tove Ditlevsen


Here’s a book that makes you realize why there aren’t very many female authors in history.  Tove grows up poor in Copenhagen in the early twentieth century. However such is her love of writing that she can say:
. . on my fifth birthday (my father) gave me a wonderful edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, without which my childhood would have been grey and dreary and impoverished
I would think with the rickets and the diphtheria and everything you can still qualify as having an impoverished childhood. (Side point: It’s quite refreshing really to realize anyone was ever poor in these Scandinavian countries; on my side I am quite exhausted by all this blond hair and equality and hygge.).

She is, as are it seems many aspiring writers, a misfit. (Why is nobody’s memoir ever about how popular they were?). Far from school days being the best days of your life, she says that:
Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.
The point is anyway that she is desperate to be a writer, and as this is the first of a trilogy, we can only assume she succeeds, but I can’t imagine how, as the books ends with her being forced out of school at fourteen (reason: she is female) and starting work as a child minder. I couldn’t help but think of the many thousands of girls of limited means in centuries past who longed just as passionately as her and didn’t make it.  And that’s only thinking of the tiny subset who lucked into literacy and so could even consider a writing career.  I will read the next two books in the trilogy and let you know how she managed it.

Monday, 3 February 2020

CAYLPSO by David Sedaris


What I got from this is that David Sedaris is older and sadder than he used to be.  In 2011 I went on a big Sedaris binge, and read almost everything he ever wrote.  This year, on an unexpected holiday in Barcelona, I borrowed his first book THE SANTALAND DIARIES. So it is especially jarring to read his latest.  In the first he is poor and young; in this one is rich and old.  I’m not quite sure how you contrive to be unhappy when you have enough money to buy a second home (by the beach) or Japanese trousers that‘cost as much as a MacBook Air,’ but he is managing it.

Perhaps it is just him.  Or perhaps it just shows that, horrifyingly enough,  money really doesn't make you happy.  Or perhaps, even worse, it's shows that to get older is to get sadder.  You have more time for sad things to happen to you, so the odds are against you.  His sister, from whom he was estranged, killed herself. His mother is dead, his father is ninety-one and doing some serious hoarding.

You feel him sort of flailing for his old style, trying to have last lines that neatly and unexpectedly complete every essay (a miracle of his past books) but somehow, at least for me, it all seems a bit effortful.  That said, Sedaris not at his best is about ten times better than most.  A small sample:
I started seeing people wearing face masks in the airport and decided that I hated them.  What bugged me I realized, was their flagrant regard for their own lives.  It seemed not just overcautious but downright conceited.  I mean, why should they live?
This really made me laugh.  I feel this way about people with their raw/paleo/whatever diets, but I'm not ballsy enough to say so.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

EXPECTATION by Anna Hope


Apparently once you reach your late thirties you lose your sense of humour.  Or at least that is what I get from this book, which targets my demographic with a surgical precision that is almost embarrassing. 

It focuses on three women in their late thirties in London, and is in some cases uncomfortably close to the bone.  One of them is a struggling actress, one is a successful but personally unfulfilled businesswoman, and one is some kind of flake who gets pregnant by mistake and moves to the provinces (or, as I like to call it, that place where they voted for Brexit and now I hope get to experience the full consequences they so richly deserve).

You can tell it is a book about London from the very first page, that builds up a picture of a house on the edge of a park in which the women live.  Outside is a gorgeous summer’s day with lots of picnickers:
Every so often one of those people will look up towards the house.  They know what the person is thinking – how do you get to live in a house like that?
Yes, house prices are indeed the main thing you do think about at such a moment, I can myself confirm. 

These ladies go through various ups and downs, and I did enjoy the great specificity of a moment and a place that I know well.  But for me it had an over-arching sense of sadness and compromise (no, you can’t be an actress, no, you can’t be pregnant, etc), that I can’t say I recognize as part of middle age.  I also was mystified by the great emphasis put on the achievements of women of the previous generation.  One older woman (apparently un-ironically) asks:
We fought for you.  We fought for you to be extraordinary.  We changed the world for you and what have you done with it?
I would have thought the case against the baby boomer fat cats was well established.  Mostly what we are doing is cleaning up the mess they made. 

Lastly, there was lots of stuff like this. 
Bitter red leaves mixed in amongst the green, walnuts and goat’s cheese crumbled on the top.  There is olive oil in a separate bowl, with a pool of balsamic at the bottom.  Good, chewy bread with salty butter. 
It made me want to beat them to death with their own Waitrose bags. 

Friday, 31 January 2020

THINGS WE DIDN’T TALK ABOUT WHEN I WAS A GIRL by Jeannie Vanasco


In this memoir a woman interviews the boy who raped her in high school.  It’s very interesting, as while we have all read many accounts of what it is like to be raped, I can hardly think of any accounts of what it’s like to be a rapist. 

This guy was her good friend in high school.  One night when she was back home from college, she got drunk with some of her high school friends.  She was taken down to his basement room to sleep it off.  Once there he took her clothes off, fingered her, and then masturbated over her, all the while murmuring about how she shouldn’t worry and it was all a dream.  She cried throughout. 
A few days later he called her to apologize.  She said it was okay and said he should red FRANNY AND ZOOEY, which was one of her favourite novels at that time.  She then didn’t speak to him for the next fifteen years.

The book is structured around her decision to try and write about this event, and the series of phone calls she had with her rapist about how he thought about that night.  Remarkably, despite the fact that the statue of limitations has not run out on the offense, he agrees to talk to her.  It appears that the event has troubled him for years, and particularly he is haunted by the sound of her crying.  However, unsatisfyingly, he can’t really say why he did it, other than that he wanted to. 

He's currently a thirty-five year old virgin, and doesn’t have many friends.  He was smart in high school, but found college tough, and now works at a camera shop.  (Here he is on life at university:
I mean, did I have a hard time re-conceptualizing myself as a not-genius?  Yeah, that took some processing. 
This sort of confidence is why men are men and women are not men).

He talks about how he used to shoplift as a young man, just to see what he could get away with, and what I concluded in the end is that this was probably what was going on with the assault. 

I felt rather sorry for the author herself by the end.  She has had what seems a remarkably large number of non-consensual sexual experiences (her first boyfriend, four years her senior, forced her into oral sex; she was date raped; she was fondled by a high school teacher); and seems to have a lot of issues around men in general (she is glad her father is dead at the time of this rape because she doesn’t want to make him unhappy by telling him about it (?!?)).  I can’t think of a single significant non-consensual sexual experience I’ve had (I mean other than groping or whatever, but that’s just being alive and female).  Also if something did happen to me I would tell my dad about it ASAP because he would sort it out immediately. 

Also depressingly, it seems to me clear she lives in ‘cancel culture’ because she spends much of the book worrying that people will critique her for giving her rapist so much of a voice in her book.  I mean jesus lady, it’s your rape.  You do what you want with it. 

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

SOLITARY by Albert Woodfox


I read this book on holiday on a tropical island, and woke up the person I was sleeping with by quietly blubbling over it at 1 o’clock in the morning.  It is not a book about which it my business to say if it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather just to be astonished at what this man has achieved.  What he has achieved is surviving forty years in solitary confinement with his sanity intact. 

Woodfox was born to a poor and unmarried woman in the 1940s in New Orleans.  She sometimes had to prostitute herself to keep them fed.  Woodfox was picked up by police many times, often not for crimes but just to meet arrest targets (apparently this was very common in the mid twentieth century).  Eventually for a car theft (that he did in fact do) he is offered either four years in a medium security prison or two years in the maximum security prison of Angola.  Being young and dumb he takes Angola.   As he puts it:
The horrors of the prison in 1965 cannot be exaggerated. 
And this is a man who has seen more than most of us.  Here he describes ‘fresh fish’ day, where new prisoners walk to their dormitories.
It was also the day sexual predators lined up and looked for their next victims.  Sexual slavery was the culture at Angola.  . . . If you were raped at Angola, or what was called ‘turned out,’ your life in prison was virtually over.  You became a ‘gal-boy,’ . . . you’d be sold, pimped, used, and abused by your rapist and even some gaurds. Your only way out was to kill yourself or kill your rapist. 
If the latter, you were free from further rape, but would never leave prison.  He tells us of his entrance there in 1965:
26 of us went down the walk that day.  T.Ratty and I were the only two who didn’t get turned out.
Angola used to be a slave plantation, and was still run on similar lines, with white guards  (called not guards but ‘freemen’) living on site and the job being passed down from father to son.  Prisoners were forced to work in the fields for 2 cents an hour without proper safety gear.  At some point Woodfox is transferred to a different jail, and there he meets some inmates who are Black Panthers.  His life and his worldview are transformed by exposure to their political philosophy.  Barely literate before, he learns for the first time of colonialism, of great African-Americans, and of the idea that his mother’s tough life was a result of systemic oppression rather than her personal failings.  He pledges his life to the ‘ten principles’ of the  Black Panthers, and when he is transferred back to Angola single-handedly begins to try and re-educate his fellow inmates.  He now sees himself as a political prisoner working for the greater good.  He understands that prison operates by keeping inmates separated, and ill-educated, and works to unify them around certain causes (e.g., no more anal cavity searches), and to end the rape culture that destroys so many inmates mentally.  He meets two other prisoners, Herman and King, who are also Panthers, and the three begin a lifelong relationship that goes beyond friendship to a kind of solidarity we who are free will be lucky to ever achieve.

When a white prison guard is murdered, the three are framed for it, as the guards have noticed their power with the inmates.  So slapdash is the framing, that King was not even at the prison when the guard was killed.  Three inmates testify against them (and are then given much reduced sentences). Incredibly, ten inmates, despite beatings and time in ‘the dungeon’ (you don’t’ want to know), testify for them.  It doesn’t matter, as the all white jury are all closely connected to Angola prison staff , and so the three begin their time in solitary.  This is 23 hours a day in a cell the size of a walk-in closet.  Only in the late seventies are they allowed out in the open air for their one hour a day; at that time, some prisoners haven’t been outdoor in DECADES.  Prisoners frequently lose their minds.  Most are taken off CRR (as its called) after a few months, but these three despite blameless records remain there as the years pass. 

They are tear gassed so often they get used to it, and don’t need masks while the guards do.  They are beaten often.   But the claustrophobia is clearly the worst.  They remain true to their Black Panther ideals, unaware that the Black Panthers have long been disbanded.  As old men, Anita Roddick of the Body Shop becomes interested in their case.  The State of Lousiana, incredibly, first tries to claim that their conviction is not unsafe, and then that in any case solitary confinement for FORTY YEARS is not cruel.  Even has Herman is given just weeks to live due to liver cancer, they still won't let him out.  Woodfox’s lawyer manufactures a way for him to see Herman, but the State says he must wear the ‘box’ on his wrists – which is known to be painful even for an hour.  He agrees to do it for fifteen hours so he can see his dying friend.  
I didn’t say much.  My communication with Herman was mostly silent.  I didn’t know how much time he had left.  I silently told him how much I loved him, and that when we didn’t have his back anymore, the ancestors would.
Eventually Herman, days from death, is allowed out of prison – but only after the warden is threatened with prison himself.  They take him to a hospital so he can at last ‘be free’ and bring in flowers for him to smell, his first in decades. He dictates a death bed statement, avowing his and Woodfox’ innocence. 
The state may have stolen my life, but my spirit will continue to struggle along with Albert and the many comrades who have joined us along the way here in the belly of the beast.In 1970 I took an oath to dedicate my life as a servant of the people, and although I ‘m down on my back, I remain at your service. 
Woodfox is eventually freed too.  He reminds us in closing that Lousiana's incarceration rate is the worst in the world, at 1 in 86 adults, which 13x China's and 2x the American average.  A two time car burglar can easily receive 24 years.  He also reminds us that the system remains institutionally racist, with a black arrestee 75% more likely to get a charge with a minimum sentence than a white one for the same crime

What impressed me most about this book was Woodfox's victory in the mental struggle, which is the struggle we all face, though those of us lucky enough to be free face a smaller version of it.  It is remarkable to see how far he travelled while never leaving his tiny cell.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

THE COST OF LIVING by Deborah Levy

Some people turn to drink to get them through their divorce.  Deborah Levy turns to notable literary feminists.  The result is a sad and thoughtful memoir about starting again at fifty.  It's also a little annoying.  Levy (or her editor) aren't shy, so there are lots of disconnected snippets of ordinary life, including a nice long list of what she can see in her study.  This is in my experience a major red flag in terms of getting carried away with how literary we are.  There is also some pretty appallingly bougey North London bits, as when her friend lends her a study.  (Who has this kind of space?  I'll tell you, people with inherited wealth in N. London).  Also, she seems to find riding with Uber drivers unnerving, because they use satnav:
It made them rootless, ahistorical, unable to trust their memory or senses, to measure the distance between one place and another.  The River Thames, referred to by Londoners as the river, was of no geographical significance to the driver.  It . . .was just one of many abstract rivers flowing through the abstract cities of the world.
That's just called being an IMMIGRANT.  I don't know why she makes it sound like being rootless and ahistorical is a bad thing. For some of us, that's just life.

Anyway, I'm not sure why I got carried away bashing on this book, because in fact I liked it.  She has lots of little nuggets of wisdom, of which a few samples, below:


The writing life is mostly about stamina 

It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century.   

It is so hard to claim our desires and so much more relaxing to mock them

This last, I read out loud to a man, to say how true it was, and he looked at me blankly.  I don't mock my desires, he said.  One thing I think is true: men are often more successful than women simply because they take themselves more seriously

Lastly, I liked her perspective on how sadness can be a choice. She said hers was  “. . . was starting to become a habit, in the way that Beckett described sorrow becoming ‘a thing you can keep adding to all your life … like a stamp or an egg collection.'"   She looked at it specifically through the lens of the kinds of narratives we tell ourselves. Here specifically on divorce:
When a woman has to find a new way of living and breaks from the societal story that has erased her her name, she is expected to be viciously self-hating, crazed with suffering, tearful with remorse.  These are the jewels reserved for her in the patriarchy's crown, always there for the taking.  There are plenty of tears, but it is better to walk through the black and bluish darkness than reach for those worthless jewels.
It's a long time since I heard anyone use the word patriarchy without an edge of mockery.  Patriarchy aside, I like the idea that you can pick or choose what story you are in 


Saturday, 18 January 2020

LUCKY JIM by Kingsley Amis



Here is a book about a man’s heroic refusal to be reconciled to his own life.   I found it sort of revelatory.  I guess we must live in a culture that really does heavily emphasize the power of positive thinking, because I realize it has been a really long time since I last heard someone unapologetically despising their own life.  Somehow it was quite a relief.

This novel is about a junior university professor, Dixon, desperate to be retained at his university despite his total contempt for it.  He chose medieval history as his subject thinking it would be a soft touch and now faces a lifetime giving lectures on ‘Merrie England.
 
Here he is seeing a pretty girl with his boss’ son Bertrand:
The notion that women like this were never on view except as the property of men like Bertrand was so familiar to him that it had long since ceased to appear as an injustice
And here he is listening to that boss breathe too loudly:
Fury flared up in his mind like forgotten toast under a grill.
And here he is looking at some house plants:
. . . potted and tubbed palms of an almost macabre luxuriance.
His is a life just waiting to implode.  What kicks it off is this Bertrand’s girlfriend, who he manages to get talking to at a dance.  (Quick side point: watched enviously by another man, he reflects that “the possession of the signs of sexual privilege is the important thing, not the quality nor the enjoyment of them.”  I found this hilarious.  It’s what most people feel, I’m sure, but it’s few who will admit it).

He  upsets his boss with this flirtation, then makes bad choices in terms of getting a bit too Merrie with the whiskey during one of his lectures.  Eventually it all works out for him, better than he deserves, and it ends with the traditional mad dash to meet this girl at the train station and declare his love.  This book being what it is, even this is infuriating. He has to take the bus, which goes very slowly, and no person who has frequently to take public transport can fail to sympathize with his mounting rage:
Dixon thought he really would have to run downstairs and knife the drivers of both vehicles; what next? what next? What actually would be next: a masked holdup, a smash, floods, a burst tyre, an electric storm with falling trees and meteorites, a diversion, a low-level attack by Communist aircraft, sheep, the driver stung by a hornet? He'd choose the last of these, if consulted. Hawking its gears, the bus crept on, while every few yards troupes of old men waited to make their quivering way aboard.
I had avoided Kingsley Amis for years, having once read and really disliked a book by his son Martin Amis.  I’m sorry I put him off for so long, because I found this book both hilarious and strangely liberating

Friday, 3 January 2020

THE MOUNTAIN LION by Jean Stafford


You can tell this book is written from  someone’s real life, because it is just so entirely weird.  It is a horribly vivid recollection of childhood, and a reminder of just how gruelling growing up can be.

It’s full of reminders of how children see the world; here is the main character, a little girl called Molly, remembering a “. .  queer and somehow pleasant horror when once a gull had winked at her and she had seen that his lower eyelid moved and not the upper one.”

And here is a horrifying moment for her brother, when he asks his mother what she is sewing:
“I am making some curtains for Molly’s sitting room,” and held up a pair of bloomers, right in front of Ralph. 
The book is full of fun period detail like this.  At one point the kids are allowed to come home early from school due to the nosebleeds they always get after ‘their scarlet fever’ while their sisters stay “cooped up in school with nothing at all to do but chew paraffin on the sly”.  I’ve heard of sniffing glue but this is another level

Molly and her brother are very close, but over the six years the book covers they grow apart.  This is not for the small stuff – as for example, once, when she wears his Boy Scout shirt with the moto ‘Be Prepared’ on it, and he tells her that for a girl to do this is the same as  “dragging the American flag through the dirt.” (Note, this is a minor incident in the book, but apparently this actually happened to the author, and she cut the logo off with a knife intentionally mutilating herself as she did so)

What breaks them apart is hard to say, but is partly down to Molly’s bad temper (you can tell this is drawn from life, because the children are not all adorable innocents who need protection but real people who do cruel things).  More though, in some weird way, it’s down to sex.  Ralph becomes aware of the fact that it is not just farmyard animals who get busy:
He had not, in any conscious way, really connected his knowledge with people, as now he did, to his shame and sorrow, wondering with especial revulsion, about the Follansbees.  He found himself compelled to study the faces of the men at the diner table and to look with stunned amazement at Mrs Brotherman
Somehow this leads to their falling out.  Molly adds him to her list of unforgivables, which includes almost everybody.  Near the end, it includes herself:
. . she reached for her diary and her pencil and to the list of unforgivable she added her own name.  She burst into tears and cried until she was hungry, and all the time she cried she watched herself in the mirror, getting uglier and uglier until she looked like an Airedale.
The author’s brother, to whom she was close, died just before she wrote this book, and the writing is alive with all kinds of pain and comedy.  Read it if you want to feel grateful to be an adult already.

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...