A single sentence could render either of us insane

How to Stop Time
by Matt Haig

I love Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive and his essays on mental health, plus he gives good Twitter, but I had put off reading his fiction. Why did I do that? Of course I was going to like it.

The narrator of How to Stop Time, Tom Hazard, was born in 16th century France. Now, in the 21st century, he’s working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive school. He’s not a time traveller, he has a medical condition that makes him age really really slowly. So slowly that he still looks to be in his 40s, not his 400s.

It’s science fiction that wears the science lightly but doesn’t avoid it. An explanation is given, and some details added, but the bulk of the story is about the emotional effect of the condition.

“Forever, Emily Dickinson said, is composed of nows. But how do you inhabit the now you are in? How do you stop the ghosts of all the other nows from getting in? How, in short, do you live?”

Continue reading “A single sentence could render either of us insane”

Early summer reads: short reviews

I shouldn’t complain that life has been full of holidays and social events and lovely weather to be enjoyed (and work), and to be honest it hasn’t slowed down my reading particularly. But it does mean I am woefully behind on reviews, so here are some brief thoughts on recent reads.

the sandman vol 2The Sandman Vol. 2 The Doll’s House
by Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III

How to explain The Sandman? It’s a whole mythology where Death and Dream and Desire and several others are immortal non-human siblings, sharing or sometimes squabbling over their power/responsibility. This review contains some minor spoilers of the first volume.

Dream, or Morpheus, has recently awoken from his entrapment by a magicians’ circle to find the Dreaming in chaos. While setting it all to rights, he senses that there is a Dream Vortex in the shape of a young woman, Rose Walker. She is trying to put her family back together, unaware of the danger that surrounds her or of Dream trailing her closely. Rose is a fantastic character and there are some wonderful comic touches here, such as the serial killers’ convention. But really it’s the combination of gorgeous art (with wonderful covers by long-time Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean) and writing that make this a great book.

“It seemed like the late autumn wind blew them in that night, spinning and dizzying from the four corners of the world. It was a bitch wind, knife-sharp and cutting, and it blew bad and cold. And they came with it, scurrying and skittering, like yellow leaves and old newspapers, from a thousand places and from nowhere at all. They came in their suits and their tee shirts, carrying rucksacks and suitcases and plastic bags, muttering and humming and silent as the night.”

Continue reading “Early summer reads: short reviews”

I am my mind. Not my body

The A-Z of You and MeThe A–Z of You and Me
by James Hannah

From the marketing campaign around this debut novel – and the strapline on the cover (“A comedy of errors, a tragedy of small mistakes”) – I was expecting quite a light read, even though the premise should have prepared me for something a bit darker. It’s certainly an easy, often sweet read, but its subject matter is pretty dark. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

Ivo is lying in a hospice, trying his best not to dwell on the past, but he’s so young to be dying, still in the middle of all the drama that is life. To distract him from the pain, his nurse gets him to play a game of naming a body part for each letter of the alphabet and coming up with an anecdote for each body part. And so he plays the game, telling the story of his life out of order and one body part at a time.

Continue reading “I am my mind. Not my body”

Something from that moment needed to be kept

all the days and nightsAll the Days and Nights
by Niven Govinden

This is a short, lyrical, even painterly novel about a dying artist. It’s in some ways the epitome of literary fiction, with a very simple storyline playing second fiddle to the style and language, but it didn’t feel at all pretentious or complex.

Anna Brown is a famous artist nearing death in her home in a small farming community not too far from New York City. She has her faithful housekeeper/cook/companion Vishni and her agent of sorts Ben for company in her final days, but her husband John – her muse and subject of most of her paintings – has gone missing, he just walked away. Anna addresses him, trying to imagine his journey and his state of mind, while also reminiscing on their life together. In the present she is painting her final work, turning her little household to turmoil as she forsakes oxygen tank and rest for her art.

I loved the language of this book, and the way it talked about art from so many perspectives – creating it, appreciating it, collecting it, displaying it. Anna doesn’t talk about death or dying but it’s clearly there in the forefront of her mind. She is obsessed with her art to the point of pushing people far beyond the bounds of most friendships, and her feelings for John are complicated by his being her muse as well as her husband. The story is sweet, moving, contemplative but never boring.

“You were bronzed and smooth, flaxen and happy; it was as if the last days of young manhood were making themselves known. I was blinded by the beauty of it, from the way you smiled to the trail of mosquito bites on your lower arm and the redness of your lips from all the beer…I wanted to shout at you…hold your pose because something from that moment needed to be kept. You were perfect. But I held my voice, because to explain it would be to kill your naturalness.”

Published October 2014 by The Friday Project.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

See how the light needs shadows

bone-clocks

The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell

It’s almost two weeks since I finished this book, and the more I reflect on it the higher it ranks in my esteem. It’s definitely a book that rewards giving it some thinking time.

If you’ve read any of Mitchell’s first three books (Ghostwritten, number9dream and Cloud Atlas) then this new release will feel familiar, and not just because of the direct references to characters, places and things in those books. This has actually been true of all Mitchell’s books but never quite so clearly as here. He has been world-building for five novels and now he’s capitalising on it with a glorious plot that combines the best of all that has gone before and throws in some brand new magic.

“Empires die, like all of us dancers in the strobe-lit dark. See how the light needs shadows. Look: wrinkles spread like mildew over our peachy sheen; beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat-by-beat, varicose veins worm through plucked calves; torsos and breasts fatten and sag…as last year’s song hurtles into next year’s song and the year after that, and the dancers’ hairstyles frost, wither and fall in irradiated tufts…”

As I mentioned in my write-up of David Mitchell’s talk at Bristol Festival of Ideas last week, it would be very easy to spoil this plot by saying too much, so I’m going to try very hard not to do that.

The Bone Clocks opens with teenager Holly Sykes having a really rubbish day. She starts off pretty annoying, as indeed most teenagers are, but as events continue to go badly for her, I realised I must have warmed to her because I really did care how things were going to turn out. It’s 1984 on the Kent—Essex border and though Holly mentions punk music and the miners strike, she doesn’t need to because the setting is so very alive. Holly’s parents own a pub and in reading about it I pictured all those small town pubs from my own childhood.

There are hints of something fantastical in the background, that this isn’t just a realistic story about a 15-year-old who’s had a massive fight with her mam, but Mitchell keeps these hints simmering slowly. It’s a tactic that for me paid off brilliantly, as it kept me reading even when the narrator switched to a whole new person and story that once again I needed to warm up to.

“Grey comes in through the cracks, birdsong too, and the sound of a lorry passing overheard, and a sharp pain from a knocked ankle, and I’m crouching on the concrete ground of an underpass, just a few yards from the exit. A breeze that smells of car-fumes washes over my face, and it’s over, my daymare, my vision, my whatever-it-was, is over.”

As always, Mitchell’s style is very readable and enjoyable. There’s plenty of humour to balance out the occasionally tough topics addressed. But key to what makes this such a good read is that every character is a rounded, believable person and though there are a few clear heroes and villains, even they can’t be relied on to be wholly good or bad.

Published 2014 by Sceptre.

Source: Waterstones.

You had to have a lot of time left if you were going to start reading Bolaño

The End of Your Life Book Club

The End of Your Life Book Club
by Will Schwalbe

After this book received universally good reviews from people I trust/have similar taste to (there’s a strong correlation there; I should probably investigate that sometime) I knew I would read it eventually, but I worried it would be super depressing. The “end of your life” part of the title is not euphemistic; it really is about the end of someone’s life. But it was a surprisingly entertaining, easy read. I’m not saying I didn’t get sad at all; I’m not that cold-hearted.

This is a memoir written by American publisher-turned-journalist Schwalbe about the books he and his mother Mary Anne read together when she was dying of cancer. They knew from her first diagnosis that the cancer was terminal, so there is no question how the book will end. This gives the book a largely matter-of-fact background of chemotherapy, pain relief and other palliative care, but also the emotional side of dealing with and preparing for death.

“I was fine until right after I fastened my seat belt. For me, there’s something about planes that isolates and intensifies sadness, the way a looking glass can magnify the sun until it grows unbearably hot and burns.”

The gradual change (for both Will and Mary Anne) from denial to anger to acceptance is clear without being overtly discussed. By which I don’t mean that they ever deny her diagnosis or expect a magical turnaround, but initially they don’t discuss death at all, they just get on with the surgery and trying out different chemo drugs. However, it is of course there the whole time. In fact, when Mary Anne is diagnosed, her daughter, Will’s sister Nina, is about to move to Switzerland with her family and must make the decision whether or not to go, which of course boils down to: does Mary Anne have weeks left or years?

This uncertainty is something I haven’t really read about before, though I know (and have known) people for whom it is true, and it is in some ways harder on the family than the fact of death itself. How far ahead do you allow yourself to plan? Do you book holidays? Do you throw great big birthday and other celebratory parties because they might be the last one with her? Following Mary Anne’s lead, the family slowly figure all these things out – while she can, she wants to do everything she can, including continuing to work and travelling abroad. As her health worsens and her energy levels drop, plans simplify and are built around what she can and can’t do.

“Those extraordinary chemicals, with their remarkable names, now sound totally different: Gemcitabine. Xeloda. Before they sounded like harsh detergents. Now they sound cool and magical, like a new rock band you’ve come to love.”

Mary Anne was a wonderful, inspiring woman. In fact, the whole family are and made me feel quite inadequate at times, but Mary Anne especially. After responding to an unsolicited begging letter from a nun, she quit a very good, secure job as the head of a New York girls’ school to start a charity for women refugees. She travelled to many of the least desirable parts of the world to meet for herself the people she was helping. The danger that she had put herself in time and again is brought home by the fact that during the timeline of this book, a friend and colleague of hers is held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

But most importantly, of course, at least for this to be the book that it is, Mary Anne and Will share a deeply ingrained love for books. They discuss the books they read in depth, which appears to be something they have always done, but the difference now is twofold – they are choosing to read the same books, even calling it a book club, and they are spending more time alone together than perhaps ever (Will is the middle of three children, after all) as Will accompanies Mary Anne to the doctor, to chemo and spends more time with her at home. (I should add here that so too do Will’s father, brother and sister and all their partners, but this book is about Will and his mother and their time together.)

“In the summer, Mom and I had read slender books. Now we were reading one long book after another. Maybe that was one way of expressing hopefulness—you had to have a lot of time left if you were going to start reading Bolaño, or Thomas, or Halberstam…I remarked to Mom how all the books we were reading then shared not just length but a certain theme: fate and the effects of the choices people make.”

The books they read are many and varied, though fairly firmly literary. Each chapter is named after a book that was of particular significance but the full list of books discussed is provided as an appendix and is six full pages long. You don’t need to have the books to follow the discussions of them but when it was a book I’ve read, I did feel a little glow of “I’ve read that! I could join this conversation!” The book discussions tend not to be so much about the style or quality of writing, but more about the subject matter. Often Will uses a book as a jumping-off point to tell us about Mary Anne’s life or anecdotes from earlier in their life together.

Ridiculously, considering the situation, I found myself at times jealous of the relationship Will and Mary Anne have through books. Not that I’m not close to my Mum. In fact, she gave me this book, which at the time I didn’t twig was especially significant. But currently we have very different taste in books. She likes memoirs/biographies to the exclusion of all else, so I don’t think we could come up with a very long list of books to share. Then again, this is of course a memoir and I really liked it, so perhaps I should lend it to her and have a mini book club next time we see each other. Hmm… But back to the review…

This feels like a very honest book. We learn about Will’s life, about the books he didn’t finish reading even though Mary Anne was eager to discuss them, about the blog that Mary Anne wrote in Will’s name to keep their extended family and friends up to date with her health (she felt it wouldn’t be suitable for it to written by her!) and about Will and Mary Anne’s different attitudes toward religion, plus of course about the long slow decline of terminal cancer. In the end, it was sad but not heartbreaking. I’m not sure if this is because Mary Anne was in her 70s and had lived a rich and full life, or if it is down to the way Will writes about her, about how intellectually sharp and full of hope and kindness she remained to the end.

I think Schwalbe found the right combination of topics here, so that it isn’t all about pain and suffering, or sorrow and self-reflection, or a biography of a great and inspiring woman, or even just about great books, but instead it’s a book that pays tribute to Mary Anne and appeals to the intellectual and emotional draw of books, while also dealing with a tough subject that we will all have to face up to at some point. He also found the right balance between writing about the pain and difficulty of his mother’s slow death and the positive side of the situation: he had the warning to start spending more time with his mother, and had rich, rewarding times with her at the end of her life.

I don’t think Schwalbe is himself a great literary writer, so this doesn’t have the writerly quality of Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, say (which in fact is one of the books discussed), but I suppose that makes this book more accessible and serves as a reminder that not every avid reader is also a great writer. I can’t see myself checking out Schwalbe’s book about e-mail, but I do think that if I read books covered in The End of Your Life Book Club I might well come back to it to remind myself what Will and Mary Anne had to say!

First published 2012 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: A Christmas present from my Mum.

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion

Since discovering Didion last year, I have been eager to read more of her work, and where better to start than her famous memoir of the year following her husband’s death? Thankfully my book club agreed and we picked it for our February meeting.

This book wasn’t quite what I expected. I thought it would be very slow and contemplative, so I started it well ahead of book club. But actually I sped through it, I might almost call it gripping. The book starts with Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne dying of a sudden heart attack. But at the same time their daughter Quintana was in intensive care fighting pneumonia, so Didion couldn’t let herself fall apart or retreat into herself. She dealt with this odd delay in her grief by writing about it, then and there.

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

This is very much a memoir of that specific year in Didion’s life, not of her life before. Nor is it about her husband, though obviously memories of him do feature, but only in relation to Didion experiencing them resurfacing, which often results in some of the book’s more moving moments. She will mention in a very matter-of-fact way that she can no longer drive down certain streets or let herself see certain landmarks because the memories they recall threaten to break her, and it is only when you think about what she has said that you realise how close to the edge she is.

“One day when I was talking on the telephone in the office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk. When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message?”

Because what’s interesting about this book is that although it is raw and honest, Didion’s emotions are processed in a very cerebral, intelligent way, so initially she seems a little cold or detached (which is no doubt partly shock), and it takes time to realise that this is a very emotional, hurt person, dealing with that pain the only way she can. As the book goes on, feelings come more to the fore, and some of the more recognisable signs of grief such as regrets and obsession over details emerge.

“What would I give to be able to discuss this with John? What would I give to be able to discuss anything with John? What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy? What would that one that one small thing be? If I had said it in time would it have worked?”

The precarious health of Quintana does of course complicate the grieving process. It gives Didion something to focus on but also an excuse not to get back to “real life”. It’s also the aspect of the book that consolidated my sympathy for Didion, because while it may sound harsh, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Didion and her husband lived a very privileged life – they were famous, successful and well paid, with multiple homes and an intimate knowledge of the best hotels in many a city. I think this bald fact ran the risk of detracting from any sympathy I felt, but for the most part I was fully on Didion’s side, absorbed in her story.

I liked that I was able to recognise the style of Didion the novelist in this book, even though it was a very different beast. She makes use of quotes, repetition, research and fractions of thoughts, returns over and over to certain moments, in an otherwise linear narrative. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed The Last Thing He Wanted and will continue to check out her back catalogue.

First published 2005 by Alfred A Knopf/HarperCollins.

Source: Foyles Bristol.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Instability is a permanent condition that adapts with the times

The Days of Anna Madrigal

The Days of Anna Madrigal
by Armistead Maupin

I thought quite hard about what should be my first book of the new year and this felt like a really good choice. I was really excited to be sent a copy of this, the latest Tales of the City novel, having loved the first book in the series. And this ninth instalment is just as funny, touching, well observed and eye-opening as that first one was for me. Those who haven’t read the whole series might find spoilers in this review.

Anna Madrigal was the eccentric but beloved landlady of the legendary 28 Barbary Lane. Now she is very old and, feeling that her time is near, takes a trip to her childhood home in Nevada, hoping to come to peace with the actions of the boy she once was. At the same time, several of her dearest friends are heading for the annual Burning Man festival, also in Nevada, and they have their own gremlins to deal with. Will Shawna take the biggest step of her life and become a mother? Will Michael find peace with his younger, hipper husband? Will Jake’s painstaking plan to honour Anna come to fruition or fall apart in the desert dust?

“‘Chillax? You don’t say chillax.’
‘I’m saying it now. Because you’re acting like you’re twelve and hormonal.’
If only he knew, thought Michael. Sixty-two was a lot like twelve and hormonal. Teenagers rage against the end of childhood, old people against the end of everything. Instability is a permanent condition that adapts with the times.”

This book was, perhaps inevitably, a little more serious than the start of the series was. It’s certainly not without humour, or lighter moments, but the overarching themes include ageing, death and betrayal, and when the death that’s most imminent is that of a character who has been beloved through eight previous books over 35 years, well, you can’t be flippant about it.

There are also more positive themes such as renewal and acceptance. Which all sounds remarkably worthy, and that’s one thing this book isn’t. It’s touching, moving even, but never overly sentimental. In fact, I found Anna just as hard to get inside the head of as ever. But then the other characters have the same problem with her so I guess that’s just how she is.

“Summer had been warmer than usual this year, but the heat that throbbed in the East Bay was already coaxing pale fingers of fog into the city. Anna could feel this on her skin, the chilly caress she had come to think of as ‘candle weather’.”

There’s quite a broad cast of characters here, most of whom (though not all) are LGBT, and I like how the sheer number of people he’s created allows Maupin to not stereotype or pigeonhole any one character. They are all human and interesting. They have realistically complicated relationships with one another, which I know is partly a result of having several previous books about most of these people. But it’s also an accurate reflection of how the world is. Couples break up and move on but often still have mutual friends. Sometimes if you examine how you met your best friend you realise that to begin with they were your ex-boyfriend’s boss’s landlady, and you’re no longer in touch with your ex but that tenuous connection became the most important friendship of your life.

It’s hard to write much more about this book without giving away the events in it, but I really did find it charming and enjoyable, and I am glad to have been reminded to go back to this wonderful series.

Published January 2014 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

He doesn’t have the sense of a billy goat

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
by Fannie Flagg

This was a book club pick and I thought somehow that it would be light and fluffy and girly, possibly because that’s how I remember the film (though on rewatching the film this week I discovered it’s not really those things either). It’s certainly an easy, enjoyable read, but it covers a lot of issues without labouring the point and has some very interesting things to say.

In the 1980s middle-aged Alabama housewife Evelyn Couch is visiting a nursing home and gets talking to a resident there, Mrs Ninny Threadgoode. Ninny is old and a little forgetful but also charming and immediately launches into stories about her early life in a small town called Whistle Stop. At the heart of these stories are Idgie and Ruth, the two women who ran the Whistle Stop Cafe from 1929 until it closed. However, inbetween there are snippets about other characters from the town and their lives, all told with a wonderful sense of humour.

“This skinny little man, so black he was a deep royal blue, had caused a lot of trouble for the opposite sex. One gal drank a can of floor wax and topped it off with a cup of Clorox, trying to separate herself from the same world he was in. When she survived, claiming that the liquids had ruined her complexion for life, he became continually uneasy after dark, because she had snuck up behind him more than once and cracked him in the head with a purseful of rocks.”

And at that level it all sounds a bit twee. But this book covers racist violence, domestic abuse, homosexuality, prostitution, extreme poverty and death, which is some pretty dark stuff for a story that’s so nice and chirpy on the surface. I know some at book group felt that this meant none of the themes were really explored, but were just thrown in there, and certainly the only subjects really talked about are female empowerment and death.

But then one of the running themes in this book is not talking about important things. Idgie and Ruth are a couple, which you would think was a big no-no in a small southern US town in the 1930s, but the whole town seems to know and just accept the situation. I wondered if this was because they all consider Idgie an honorary man. She certainly not only joins in with but often takes lead in hunting, fishing, gambling, drinking and the other manly pursuits of the town. But she’s far from being the only strong woman in town.

“Cleo, Idgie’s brother, was concerned…
‘Idgie, I’m telling you, you don’t need to feed every [hobo] that shows up at your door. You’ve got a business to run here. Julian…says he thinks you’d let Ruth and the baby go without to feed those bums.’
…’What does Julian know? He’d starve to death himself if Opal didn’t have the beauty shop. What are you listening to him for? He doesn’t have the sense of a billy goat.’
Cleo couldn’t disagree with her on that point.”

Each chapter takes a different source or viewpoint, so there’s Evelyn’s daily life, Ninny’s reminiscences, the Whistle Stop newsletter and other newspaper articles, and occasionally a plain old omniscient narrator. There’s also lots of jumping back and forth in time, which was confusing at first because there seemed to be sections that were unrelated, but by the end it all ties together. And also, in the end there is no single character who knows everything that the reader does, which I quite liked.

Generally, I found what could have been a heavy-handed moral tale a much more subtle look at life in the southern US. The one unsubtle message was about strong women. Really, it’s Evelyn’s story, and she is discovering through Ninny’s stories how unhappy she is with her life, downtrodden and ignored by her husband.

“After the boy at the supermarket had called her those names, Evelyn Couch had felt violated. Raped by words. Stripped of everything. She had…always been terrified of displeasing men…She had spent her life tiptoeing around them like someone lifting her skirt stepping through a cow pasture.”

As someone at book club pointed out, at the novel’s heart is the power of storytelling. Ninny’s stories have to be good for us to believe they would have such a profound effect on Evelyn. And it is all a rollicking good yarn, with a running theme of tall tales.

I seem to be saying this of every other book at the moment, but I think I would get a lot out of re-reading this.

First published 1987 by Random House.

Time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it?

The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes

This book has left me puzzled. I was happily reading it, enjoying the slow, thoughtful prose, and then the last page happened and I thought, “What?!” Is that a standard sign of a Booker prize winner? Or is it just my standard reaction to Julian Barnes?

It’s a little difficult to discuss this book without giving too much away. It’s so short, only 150 pages, and is one of those books where you could say very little happens, or that a lot happens. Which is fine. The language is beautiful, measured and philosophical.

Briefly, narrator Tony Webster is retired, divorced, but generally happy with his ordinary life. Then something happens (and we don’t find out what until halfway through) to remind him of his childhood friend Adrian. Adrian was always the brilliant, serious, passionate one and Tony muses on the lost passions of youth, love, friendship, life and death. There’s a lot of musing.

“The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

Through flashback, Tony revisits his childhood and early adulthood. During the story he is led to question his memory, not just of events but of other people’s experiences of the same events. Which isn’t exactly original, but it’s done reasonably well.

“I must stress that this is my reading now of what happened then. Or rather, my memory now of my reading then of what was happening at the time.”

The storyline annoyed me but the writing was provocative, intellectually stimulating. I’m glad I read it but I’m not sure I rate it as highly as other Booker winners I’ve read. I know a few people have said that it’s a book that demands re-reading so perhaps I should do that to see if I missed something?

“It ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

Published 2011 by Jonathan Cape.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2011.