I’ve been thinking lately about different forms of storytelling, particularly in computer games, and this new digital book feels like a natural extension. It’s an app, beautifully designed by Charlotte Hicks with botanical illustrations stretching vines and tendrils across the screen between chapters. You can swipe from chapter to chapter and read the story consecutively, or you can close each chapter after reading it and explore the map, opening chapters in the order of your choice.
The story is narrated by a girl in her last summer before going away to university. She lives in a small British hamlet, working at the local cattery. It’s the 1980s, complete with references to the music of Queen and Paul Simon and other luminaries I grew up with. The narrator reflects on her school and home life, on her friends and their homes, on the landscape she lives in.
I have been meaning to read this for years, and especially so since I added it to two of my reading lists: Classics Club and the Luke Cake Reading List. I finally bought a copy after seeing the Gordon Parks photography project of the same name in Berlin last year (Parks and Ellison worked together on the project for LIFE magazine), which was a really moving experience.
The novel is also moving, but equally brutal and shocking. It opens and closes (aside from the slightly abstract, essayistic prologue and epilogue) with its most shocking scenes. The un-named narrator starts out as a successful scholar whose family can’t afford to send him to college. His one chance is to impress the local rotary club – i.e. powerful rich white men. At the club he finds himself in a group of black young men who are stripped to their underwear and forced to fight each other while blindfolded. Afterward they are made to scrabble on the floor for their pay. It’s upsetting, humiliating, dehumanising, and the outcome is that the narrator is given a scholarship to a black-only college. It seems that his life is set.
I only recently discovered Tove Jansson. I didn’t grow up with the Moomins and it was probably only five years ago that I realised she was a woman. What I am now discovering is that she was a fascinating and talented woman. Jansson illustrated anti-fascist magazine Garm in the 1930s and continued to work as an artist throughout her better-known writing career. There is currently a retrospective of her art at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, which I hope to visit. Her books have a gentle, nature-loving heart and yet still manage to deal with some really tough subjects.
My first Jansson read was The Summer Book and I loved it. It’s the semi-autobiographical tale of a young girl who summers on an island with her (largely absent) mother and her grandmother. Next, I read a collection of Jansson’s short stories Letters from Klara, which are often sharply funny and switch easily from light to dark. Then I finally turned to her best-known creation: the Moomins.
I’ve written here before about appreciating the art in computer games and discovering narrative games. Since then I have played a number of small indie games that play with storytelling in very different ways. Here are a few that have stayed with me.
It’s now two years since Tim and I played Her Story and it remains a real high point. The interface looks like an old (early 1990s) computer console and it’s supposed to be the police database files from one particular case. All you have is a search bar where the results are video clips from a suspect’s interrogation. You’re given a hint of what to search for first, which also serves as a clue to the crime that has been committed. The video clips are actual videos, starring actress Viva Seifert. The story is really well told, even in short, out-of-order clips. It touches on fairy tales, family and some pretty dark stuff. I loved this so much I insisted on finding a way to watch every single video clip, long after we’d figured out the story.
After finding myself in a bit of a reading rut in August, I tried a few things in September to get myself reading again. I tried YA, rereads and graphic novels. It all helped, and now I’m back on track and have made headway in a couple of long books: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and A Little Life by Hanna Yanagihara. I think both will be challenging and upsetting, but hopefully also rewarding.
This week, Tim and I took a holiday at home, making a little more of our lovely city than we’d usually fit into one week. We went to the Old Vic theatre, the zoo, the Arnolfini art gallery and a very funny science show called You Can’t Polish a Nerd. Plus some great restaurants, our favourite pub quiz and some very lazy lie-ins. It was pretty great and definitely relaxing.
And then September becomes October, and autumn is most definitely here. Time for some Daphne du Maurier, if I can get through the Ellison and the Yanagihara quickly enough.
The History of Bees by Maja Lunde translated from Norwegian by Diane Oatley
This is a novel intertwining three stories in three time periods – past, present (ish) and future. The three narrators are linked by bees and their importance to agriculture. But they’re also great individual stories.
We open with the strangest of the three: Tao, in Sichuan in 2098. She hand pollinates flowers – painstaking, delicate, long days at work that give her only an hour each day with her three-year-old son Wei-Wen. Tao lives in an agricultural region that grows fruit, but throughout China hand-pollination is necessary to keep the increasingly slim food chain chugging along. She dearly wants her son to learn all he can so that he stands a chance of being sent away to school rather than to the fields but her husband Kuan wants to enjoy spending time with Wei-Wen, for him to be happy.
“I stretched as far as I could, but couldn’t quite reach the blossom at the very top. I was about to give up, but knew I might be punished, so I tried once more. Our pay was docked if we used up the pollen too quickly. And our pay was docked if we used too little. The work was invisible. When at the end of the day we climbed down from the trees, there was no evidence of our work except for the red chalk Xs on the tree trunks…It wasn’t until autumn came and the trees were laden with fruit that we would know who among us had actually succeeded in their work.”
As of April this year, there are nine books in Chris Brookmyre’s series about Glaswegian investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. I read a lot of Brookmyre back in the early 2000s, so I had read the start of this series before, but then years elapsed and rather than pick up where I left off, I thought I’d start from the beginning again. It’s been a real pleasure.
Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre
Parlabane is introduced in style in this action-packed romp. Recently returned to Scotland from LA after a difference of opinion with someone powerful who wants him dead, he is laying low in Edinburgh, until suddenly he’s face to face with police. It turns out there’s a dead body in the flat directly below his, which he discovers when he has locked himself out of his own flat, half undressed. By the time he has persuaded the police that he’s an innocent bystander, his journalistic interest has been piqued and he is pulled into a complex plot involving nefarious businessmen and Tory Party shenanigans. Each of these books has a political angle and in this case Brookmyre’s target is the Tory restructure of the NHS. It sounds like a dull basis for satire, but he efficiently finds the interesting angle and digs the knife right in, mercilessly mocking Tory policy. I can’t say I mind, as a fellow liberal lefty, but I do wonder how right-wing or non-political readers would take this. Personally, I think it’s a lot of fun. And I do love the character of Dr Sarah Slaughter.
I have always read for pleasure. I was never one of those people who resented the books I had to read for school or university – I did choose to study English lit after all. But I must admit I looked forward to the time after my degree when I would be free to read whenever I wanted to.
And that is what I have aimed to do ever since – reading by whim, not feeling bad about setting aside a book I’m not enjoying, or choosing a gripping crime novel over a slower, more “literary” alternative.
Except of course, my reading wasn’t entirely free. I have some self-imposed logic behind each choice. There are books I have agreed to review, selections for book groups I attend, reading challenges I’ve signed up to. And even beyond those, the reasons for my choices are not purely pleasure. There’s also self-education – expanding my horizons, reading books I feel I ought to read and literally learning stuff – and the guilt of the TBR, that I really should read that book my Dad bought because I put it on my Amazon wishlist 10 years ago in an ambitious moment.
Reading just for pleasure is surprisingly rare for me. And it’s also hard to pin down quite what that means. Because there is a certain enjoyment in racing through an easy, pacy read, but they can be badly written and the effect is not unlike eating junk food – very tasty initially but even before you’re done you feel bloated and dissatisfied.
When this book was chosen by my book group I was worried it would be a tough read due to the subject matter. But it turned out, the problem I had was with the narrators’ tone and voice.
That’s not to say the subject matter isn’t tough, but I was reading this at the same time as dipping in and out of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and by comparison, well, it shows that Talley’s book is intended for a young adult audience.
It’s 1959 and some school districts in Virginia are holding out against integration. Sarah is one of 10 black pupils who were specially chosen to attend the white-only Jefferson High School after years of court battles. No-one at Jefferson wants them there and more than that, they don’t understand why the black students would want to come to their school.
“I wipe the tears away and stare at my reflection until my face smooths out and my eyes go empty.
This is how they have to see me. If they know I feel things, they’ll only try to make me feel worse.
Maybe if I keep trying, I really won’t feel anything.”
So I’m still not sold on Jane Austen, having read four of her seven novels. I don’t think I will ever be a big fan, but I do increasingly appreciate her smart wit, her irony and sarcasm.
Fanny Price, however, is my least favourite Austen heroine so far. Her fate is predictable, telegraphed from the first few pages, but that’s not so bad if the journey is still enjoyable. However, Fanny is no fun at all. She’s delicate of health, oversensitive, prim, determined to believe that people can’t change, surprisingly impractical and generally a right goody-two-shoes.
Fanny is the oldest girl in a very large, not very well off family. When she is 10 she is adopted by her aunt Maria, who is married to the wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram, so Fanny moves from her chaotic but happy home in Southampton to the grandeur of Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire. She is shy, scared of her uncle and badly misses her home and family.
“Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”