Relationships are about stories, not truth

Apple Tree Yard
by Louise Doughty

This got lots of great reviews when it came out, which is how it came to be on my shelves but it wasn’t until my Twitter stream was full of responses to the recent BBC adaptation that I decided to read it.

I remember the reviews gave me a sense that this was different from the standard crime novel in some way, and they were right, but even now I struggle a little to put my finger on the exact difference. It wasn’t quite what I expected.

For starters, the actual crime is held back until late in the story. The first half of the book builds up tension while filling in the back story. Biologist Dr Yvonne Carmichael has just given evidence to a Select Committee in the Houses of Parliament when she bumps into an attractive stranger who offers to show her the private chapel. Thus begins their affair. But while they are both married, it isn’t clear for a long time exactly what crime this leads to, or why the book’s prologue has Yvonne being questioned in a criminal court.

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I still find “Negro” a word of wonders, glorious and terrible

Negroland: a Memoir
by Margo Jefferson

This is an unusual memoir. It’s heavily stylised, experimental even, but it’s also rather scholarly in its approach to the historical context of Jefferson’s own life.

Margo Jefferson was born in 1947 and raised in a well-to-do black family in Chicago, part of a black elite society with its own specific rules, norms and challenges. And this is what she documents. It’s an unusual subject for a memoir, and in keeping with that, often doesn’t feel like a memoir at all. Jefferson doesn’t bare her soul, or reveal any shocking family secrets. She doesn’t even stick to first person, slipping in and out of referring to herself in the third person.

There is a lot of background information provided about the formation of America’s black elite, which at first felt a little excessive and/or dry until I realised how recent it all was, and in fact most of the people she refers to turn out to be family friends. There is also a lot about physical appearance – how people with different types of hair handled it, how nuances of skin colour and facial shape could affect your place in society. Usually I could not be less interested in hair and make-up, but of course its relevance to this story is rather different. Because even though Jefferson was and is rich, educated and well-connected, she and her friends and family cannot get away from the fact that they are black and therefore different.

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I’d rather be alone than with you jerks

Ivy
by Sarah Oleksyk

This is an indie comic about a girl in her final year of high school going through a crisis. It’s hardly an original basis and yet this book feels fresh and new, and above all honest.

Ivy is snarky and difficult with everyone, even her closest friends. The only class at school that she likes is art, but her (single) mother is adamant that she not apply to art schools, only business schools. This comes from a place of love, because Ivy’s mother dropped out of high school, never got a degree and now works long hours in jobs she hates and rarely sees her daughter. But of course Ivy only sees the part where she rarely sees her mother and when she does they fight.

Ivy hates the star of her art class, Charlotte, for “trying too hard”. She hates her maths teacher for calling her out on not paying attention in class. She hates her friends Brad and Marisa for hanging out without her sometimes. She doesn’t hate Josh, the cute guy she meets at a college open day.

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It was foolish to think some things were beyond happening

The Secret Life of Bees
by Sue Monk Kidd

A few years back a publisher sent me a book on spec that I completely fell in love with: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I have been meaning ever since to go back to her famously popular debut novel. As her previous writings were spiritual memoirs, she’s not an obvious candidate for my fandom, but this book also really hit the spot for me.

It’s the story of Lily, a 14-year-old white girl who lives on a peach farm in South Carolina with her perpetually angry father. She may or may not have accidentally killed her mother when she was four. Either way, there’s not a lot of affection in her life and what little there is comes from her black housekeeper Rosaleen. When Rosaleen spits tobacco on the shoes of white men who are racially abusing her, she is arrested and Lily’s father refuses to bail her out. Lily fears for Rosaleen’s life in police custody so she busts her out and they run away together.

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Had he said that? Or had she just made him say it inside her head?

A Jealous Ghost
by A N Wilson

Way way back at primary school, I think for my 10th birthday, a boy in my class gave me the book Stray by A N Wilson. I hadn’t heard of the author and I wasn’t especially close friends with the boy, but it was a really well chosen gift. I loved that book (it’s about a stray cat and it’s sad and lovely and I’m pretty sure I still have it). But for some reason I never looked out for other books by the same author.

Then two years ago, Tim’s mum was clearing out some books and offered me my pick of them first. I couldn’t quite figure out why the author’s name was familiar when I picked this up but the story appealed to me, and then later I realised and was glad I was finally going back to Wilson.

The story is that of Sallie, an American student in London writing her PhD on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. She’s struggling to make friends, struggling to come up with a thesis argument that her PhD supervisor is happy with, struggling to pay rent. So someone suggests she takes time out with a summer job – perhaps as a live-in nanny so she doesn’t even have to pay rent. When at her job interview she learns that she will be looking after two young children in a country house with neither parent around – just like in The Turn of the Screw – it seems like fate.

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Testing out some new comics

Our pull list at our local comic shop seems to get longer every month. Every time a series ends or starts to flag enough for us to cancel it, another two or three come along. I’ve mostly been leaving those new series to Tim but today I decided to try out a handful and see what grabbed me.

Gamora issue #1
by Nicole Perlman (writer), Marco Checchetto (penciller) and Andres Mossa (colourist)

This new series centres around a character from Guardians of the Galaxy, which I personally only know from the excellent film. Gamora is the adopted daughter of Thanos, raised by him as an assassin and heir, despite him having created his own daughter Nebula. Consequently, Nebula hates Gamora. In the meantime, Thanos has given Gamora the gift of destroying a whole race. It’s an interesting, if violent, set-up. The artwork is an interesting, watercolour style. But I must admit this didn’t grab me.

Published December 2016 by Marvel.

 

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Meanings form spontaneously at the points of confluence

The Girl With All the Gifts
by M R Carey

This book was picked by my book club, otherwise I doubt I would have read it, but I’m glad I did. It’s also going to be very difficult to write about without spoilers.

Melanie lives in a small locked cell. Each day she is strapped to a wheelchair by soldiers and wheeled to a classroom. She loves to learn. She loves her fellow classmates, though it’s difficult to make friends when you can’t turn your head to look at each other. Most of all she loves Miss Justineau, her favourite teacher. But why is she here, living like this?

And that’s where I will leave the synopsis for now, but I’ll put a spoiler warning below so that I can explain a little more for those who have read the book/watched the film/don’t mind spoilers.

“Melanie lets these facts run together in her mind. Their possible meanings form spontaneously at the points of confluence.”

It’s definitely an easy, compelling read. I liked Melanie, who is both very smart and also naive. She is for the most part very self-aware, except for the one key aspect of herself that should have been obvious to her long before the reader figures it out. But she’s not the only good character. Miss Justineau and Dr Caldwell have a fundamental difference of opinion but are forced to work together in close quarters, leading both women to at least try to question their own point of view. And the story is interesting as well as thrilling.

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A piece of a human being but yes, a human being

Sophie’s Choice
by William Styron

I spent most of December re-reading Sophie’s Choice. I wanted to understand what it was about it I fell in love with 10 years ago. I still think it’s a great book, but it has dropped a little in my estimation.

Partly that’s its length. I used to happily read much longer books than I do now. It’s not that I have anything against long books per se, but I have less patience for rambling. I’ve always had a fondness for brevity. This book is not brief. But it is an amazing story.

This is the story of Sophie, an attractive young Polish woman who has survived the Holocaust – has survived Auschwitz – and come to live in Brooklyn, where she works as a doctor’s receptionist and is in a relationship with Nathan, a volatile but charming man who rents a room across the corridor from her. Sophie’s back story is told intermittently between the tale of the second half of 1947.

The title of this book is so familiar, a phrase well known for its hint of torment, but now that so much time has passed since both the book’s publication and the film based on it, many people now will, like me when I first read it, not know exactly what the choice of the title refers to. The novel is structured around gradually revealing Sophie’s secret, but there are plenty of smaller reveals along the way.

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Recent reads in brief

While I am slowly making my way through more than 600 pages of Sophie’s Choice, I am actually a little behind on book reviews, so here are some brief thoughts on recent reads.

Letters to a Young Poet
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated from German by Stephen Mitchell

This small volume was written 1903–1908 but its advice still feels relevant and wise, which is presumably why it quickly became a classic.

Franz Xaver Kappus was put in touch with Rilke by the chaplain at his military academy, who had known Rilke when he too was a student at the school 15 years earlier. Kappus aspired to write and Rilke was a revered (rightly so) poet. These 10 letters constitute Rilke’s advice on how to look at life as well as how to write and some non-advice observations from Rilke such as his thoughts on Rome (he was not a fan) and other places he travelled to (all the letters seem to be written from a different location, and often include reference to months spent somewhere else in-between).

What most caught my attention was Rilke’s thoughts on gender equality. He was a feminist if ever I read one. He truly believed that the two sexes were created equal and that society still unfairly favoured men as a relic from a bygone age when man’s superiority of strength and size was relevant to everyday life. Rilke not only believes that the time will come when women will be considered equal in all respects to man, he also thinks that in time women will take their turn as the gender running the show.

Rilke is sweet, earnest, but also troubled. He’s also extremely eloquent. Because he’s Rilke.

“Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would have us believe, most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.”

Briefe an einen jungen Dichter published 1929 by Insel Verlag.

This translation first published 1984 by Random House.

Source: Shakespeare & Sons, Berlin.

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The shadows resumed their jerky dance

The Silence of the Sea
by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

I picked up this book because Sigurðardóttir was recommended by Gav Reads and Savidge Reads, whose taste I often share. I managed somehow to start this crime series with the sixth book about lawyer Thóra, but I don’t think that spoiled the story and she seems pretty badass.

In this episode of Icelandic noir, a luxury yacht crashes into Reykjavik harbour wall with no-one on board, not one of the seven people known to have boarded in Lisbon. The parents of one of the missing people employ Thóra to prove that their son Ægir is dead – they really need to claim his life insurance money to be able to afford to raise their (now presumably orphaned) granddaughter.

A second timeline follows Ægir from the day he, his wife and their older two children leave Lisbon on the yacht. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience luxury beyond their means – the yacht is being repossessed by the bank Ægir works for. But from the surly skeleton crew to hideous seasickness, it’s a nightmare from the start. One that only gets worse.

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