Harsh as a cry of terror in their quietness

Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison

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.

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I don’t need to jump off cliffs into oceans to die

All Grown Up
by Jami Attenberg

This book is described in the publisher’s PR as a comedy, and while it has comic moments, that’s not really how I would describe it. Or at least, it’s not how I experienced it. I did, however, really enjoy it.

This is the story of Andrea, a woman living in New York at that point in life (39, turning 40) when she interrogates her life choices – how she stopped pursuing art and took a job in advertising that she dislikes yet is somehow still doing 10 years later; how despite a string of love affairs she is basically single and basically fine with that; how she has fallen away from friends and family who have got married and had children as she has realised that she doesn’t want those things for herself.

“A book is published. It’s a book about being single, written by an extremely attractive woman who is now married, and it is a critical yet wistful remembrance of her uncoupled days. I have no interest in reading this book. I am already single. I have been single a long time. There is nothing this book can teach me about being single that I don’t already know. Regardless, everyone I know tells me about this book. They are like carrier pigeons, fluttering messages, doing the bidding of a wicked media maestro on a rooftop in modern Manhattan. Nothing will prevent them from reaching their destination, me, their presumed target demographic.”

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There was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind

The Price of Salt
by Patricia Highsmith

Way back in the mists of time – 2005, maybe? – I read The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith for an old book club. I enjoyed it but wasn’t bowled over, so for a long time felt no urgency to try Highsmith again. This is despite one of my favourite films – Strangers on a Train – being based on a Highsmith book, not to mention regular mentions of her work by book bloggers whose taste I often share.

Finally, when the film Carol came out in 2015, based on this novel, the sudden rush of reviews of The Price of Salt persuaded me to give it a go. And I am so glad that I did. I loved this unreservedly and am eagerly adding more Highsmith novels to my wishlist now.

The story is told from the perspective of Therese, a young woman who, when the novel opens, is working in a New York City department store as a temporary Christmas job, though her ambition is to be a set designer. She sees Richard most days – an art student who she thinks of as her best friend and who thinks of her as his future wife. But that disparity doesn’t matter until the day Carol comes into the store. In their brief interaction, Therese is so bowled over that she immediately finds a way to get in touch with Carol, to instigate another meeting.

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The lens feels like another person in the room

someday-someday-maybeSomeday, Someday, Maybe
by Lauren Graham

I’ve been meaning to read this novel for a couple of years, and this month it seemed that all signs point to it. Lauren Graham is the star of Gilmore Girls, which I love and which is coming back after nine years in a Netflix miniseries that starts on 25 November. It’s marked in my diary and I am very excited. Someday, Someday, Maybe was Graham’s debut novel, soon to be followed up by Graham’s collection of essays Talking As Fast As I Can (pub date 29 November; apparently it includes some spoilers of the new TV show).

This novel is pretty nakedly inspired by earlier events in Graham’s own life, though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it autofiction. It’s about Franny Banks, a wannabe actress struggling to make it in New York City. She has given herself a strict three years to achieve her goal – that is, to earn enough from acting to live on – and that deadline, when the book opens, is six months away. She’s not a hopeless case – she’s done an advert, has an agent and goes to acting classes run by the highly selective and respected John Stavros. But her agency only books commercials, her only income is from working as a waitress at a comedy club and her dream of one day appearing in An Evening with Frances Banks at the 92nd Street Y is receding.

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There were silences as murmurous as sound

beautiful-damnedThe Beautiful and Damned
by F Scott Fitzgerald

I love the way Fitzgerald writes, but his books sure are depressing. This book lives up to the title and to its reputation as Fitzgerald’s most pessimistic work. I started the book wondering why it’s so long since I last read Fitzgerald but by the end I’d decided long breaks in-between are necessary for my sanity.

It is the story of Anthony and Gloria. They are the young and the beautiful, the idle rich. Anthony is expecting to inherit billions on the death of his grandfather, so he spends his allowance frivolously on himself, his friends, girls. Gloria dates eligible bachelor after eligible bachelor, sometimes even getting engaged, but never staying with one man for long enough to fall in love. They of course fall for each other, but is it really love or is it a shared appreciation for the same carefree lifestyle?

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(Belated) Sunday Salon: Back to real life

The Sunday SalonYou may or may not have noticed a lack of updates on this blog lately. I have been on holiday for two weeks and only had time beforehand to schedule one post, so there’s been a big gap. But I have no regrets, as I had a fantastic time away.

We have been to visit my sister (and her family) in Charlotte, North Carolina and to the city of cities, New York. Both of which were awesome. We relaxed and did lots of stuff. We ate some great food, found hidden gems and were total tourists. One day back at work and I am ready to go back across the ocean already!

Mark Illinois, Twain California Alice Texas, Walker Arizona

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Every sort of trouble I can think of, we’ve tried it out

Z

Z: a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
by Therese Anne Fowler

In case you missed me effusing on Twitter, I loved this book. A lot. I picked it up on a whim in a bookshop, having heard nothing about it and with no idea what to expect. I only knew that I was interested in the subject matter, but of course that was no guarantee. It was a good whim: I was engrossed and tore through it, then regretted having read so fast.

This is a work of fiction, but Fowler did a lot of research, reading diaries, letters, articles and interviews from Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald and their friends, in order to reach her own interpretation of Zelda’s character. What she came up with was a character I felt I had a lot in common with – I know, I’m not an obvious comparison to the original flapper and embodiment of the jazz age, but such is the skill of a good writer!

The story follows Zelda from the day she first met Scott until her death, and the life they led was pretty exciting and event-filled, so on reflection a lot has been squeezed into these 350 or so pages, but it never felt rushed or crammed at all. Fowler has somehow given Zelda space to reflect and reminisce rather than just telling her story event by event, and by doing this the character comes truly alive.

“Before Scott’s success, before people everywhere had been ravaged by war and flu, there’d been little glamour in the literary world. To be a writer then was to be a drab little mole who thought big thoughts and methodically committed them to paper…With this group, though…and the postwar push for life, for fun, for all the things Scott and I were seeking and embodying, the literary world put its foot into the circle of the entertainment world’s spotlight.”

First of all, this is a story about true love. Although their marriage was far from perfect (in fact, arguably they were destructive for each other), Scott and Zelda were unusual among the circles they moved in, in that they were indisputably the love of each other’s life. This is backed up by the fact that, though this is a book in Zelda’s voice and very clearly on Zelda’s side, so that at times Scott is the bad guy, for the most part he is also a warm, relatable character, albeit one with a long long list of flaws! But then the portrait of Zelda acknowledges her flaws too. Until her health problems slowed her down, her drinking and partying was as out of control as Scott’s. They both struggled psychologically with feelings of inadequacy and failure – though for Scott this alternated with him being convinced he was a genius.

As those who know Zelda’s story will already be aware, it is psychological problems that give her and Scott an air of tragedy. She clearly suffered with mental health issues, but, from this novel at least, it seems that perfectly manageable issues were blown up into huge problems by a combination of stigma, prejudice, misdiagnosis and outdated treatments. Add to this Scott’s alcoholism and the intense jealousy that both felt, and you have a situation that was never going to end well.

“There’s a word for people who move from place to place, never seeming to be able to settle down for long: peripatetic. And there’s a word for people who can’t seem to stay out of trouble—well, there are a lot of words for such types…Every sort of trouble I can think of, we’ve tried it out—become expert at some of it, even, so much so that I’ve come to wonder whether artists in particular seek out hard times the way flowers turn their faces toward the sun.”

But for a while there, Scott and Zelda were on top of the world. They were very young when fame hit – they married when Zelda was 20 and Scott 23, and were hitting the headlines and gossip columns pretty much immediately. Fowler does a good job of showing the glamorous, romantic side of fame and the jazz age while acknowledging that Scott and Zelda were never truly as happy or carefree as they seemed to the outside world. She also acknowledges the very many famous names the Fitzgeralds befriended, without it ever feeling like namedropping.

Certainly, I am pre-disposed to like stories about all those artists in Paris in the 1920s, but that’s actually quite a small part of the overall story. What really gripped me most of all was Zelda’s aspiration to be an artist herself, independent of Scott. She was a writer, painter and ballerina, and dearly wished to fully become one or all of those things, but Scott never properly gave her his support. Time and again he would stop her from doing something she loved either in the name of her health or in the name of being a wife and mother. Admittedly, this is Fowler’s interpretation of the situation, but to me it felt that Zelda was a woman born 50 years too soon. Of course there were women in the 1920s (and long before that) working as writers, artists and dancers, but they had to be willing to completely split from conventionality, and Zelda loved Scott too much to risk losing him by doing something he so thoroughly disproved of.

“Imagine your body is youthful, firm, a pleasure to live inside of—and you’re wise enough already to know that this is fleeting, this body and its condition. It won’t last. None of it will last. And because it won’t, you allow the beautiful person who seeks you out to become as much a part of your day, a part of this place, as the poppies that grow beside the rocky path…You let it happen because all of it is illusory anyway.”

Fowler has done a wonderful job of giving Zelda a lyrical, living voice that transported me in time, place and emotions. Her Zelda is difficult and destructive but also wonderful and alive, so that her story is all the more heartbreaking.

So aside from the clunky and possibly misleading subtitle (is it just me or could that be interpreted as “a novel by Zelda Fitzgerald”?) I loved this book thoroughly and recommend it heartily. Predictably it has made me want to read Zelda’s own fiction and indeed more of Scott’s work too. And it’s made me feel a lot better about finding Hemingway mostly too brash and macho!

Published 2013 by Two Roads, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton.

Source: Foyles, Bristol.

Film review: Begin Again

On Friday night, Tim and I wanted to see something light at the cinema, which for us usually means superhero action, but we decided to brave the description “rom com musical” and try Begin Again. We weren’t entirely out of our minds – writer director John Carney was behind one of our favourite films, Once, which we have watched together almost as many times as Scott Pilgrim. Almost.

It was a good decision. Begin Again is a beautiful film that charmed our socks off. “Rom com” it isn’t; I’d venture “indie musical” as an alternative description. If you’ve seen Once then you know just what to expect – in fact, the films are very similar, but this time Carney clearly had more money, though I’m willing to bet it was still small potatoes on the sliding scale of film budgets.

The story follows two people: Greta (Keira Knightley), a songwriter who moved to New York City with her musician boyfriend only to find herself single when he hit the big time; and Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a New York record producer who hasn’t produced a record in years and is estranged from his wife and daughter thanks to a drinking problem. They meet at an open mike night and decide to make a record together.

If you’re familiar with Once you’ll immediately see the similarity. There’s a great moment in this film when the characters discuss making an album in each of the world’s great cities and I immediately wondered if that is actually Carney’s plan (apparently it is). After all, Once is about making an album on a shoestring in Dublin. I think Begin Again acknowledges this similarity with a few overt references to Once, not least the scenes of James Corden busking.

Begin Again is a film about people who love music. Knightley’s voice isn’t the strongest but that wasn’t a problem for me, because it wasn’t about trying to sell her as a singing star. The key is people listening to music, creating music, really enjoying music. The human drama is relatively simple: will Dan reconnect with his daughter? will Greta be okay on her own (or rather single, as she has a good friend she lives with)? The film asks questions about record companies and music production (it is of course unashamedly on the side of the indie musician). But simplicity is the key. If you love music, New York, Keira Knightley (not so much for me, usually) and/or Mark Ruffalo (oh, yes) then I heartily recommend you check this film out.