Darling Days, by iO Tillett Wright

What I’m about to do is the worst and best move I will ever make.

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The book-comparison game is a dangerous one, but it is one that people who sell and promote books have to play on a regular basis. Sometimes this results in weird and vaguely desperate combinations (hands up if you’ve ever seen a book whose jacket says something like “for fans of Stephen King and Sex and the City” and wondered what the hell kind of target demographic that is); sometimes it results in regrettable over-selling (see my review of Diary of an Oxygen Thief, which wasn’t well served by being compared to The Catcher in the Rye). Sometimes—just sometimes—it’s spot on. And so it is with Darling Days, a memoir by iO Tillett Wright (yes, iO, spelled like that) that comes garlanded with comparisons to Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. Incredibly, almost improbably, the comparisons are apt. It’s a great book.

Actually, for my money, Wright is better at prose than Patti Smith is by a considerable margin. I enjoyed Just Kids for its general atmosphere of romantic bohemianism, but much of the writing on a sentence-by-sentence basis felt overwrought, emotional, and repetitive. Wright, by contrast, produces electrifying, evocative descriptions of the Lower East Side in the 1980s, a world that gentrification destroyed so quickly that it is almost as though these places never existed. Take this:

The Bowery Hotel, now a glamorous weekend landing pad for movie starlets, used to be a twenty-four-hour gas station that served radioactive vindaloo on Styrofoam plates to my mother in the middle of the night. Two mangy dogs roamed between the pumps, so dirty and caked with exhaust grease that one’s fur had turned green, the other one’s blue.

Wright’s mother’s husband, Billy, the great love of her life, was shot in his sleep by police. She was never married to Wright’s father, Seth Tillett, with whom she had a relationship after Billy’s death. Wright is entirely open about her parents’ intentions, or lack thereof (“they never had the intention of being a couple or building any kind of domestic life together”), but she’s equally clear about their love for their daughter. They promise each other that they will put her first; they will care for her; they will never put her through foster care or the courts system. Their official relationship might be only temporary, but both pledge responsibility for the baby.

For the first few years of Wright’s life, she lives with her mother. Apart from the abject poverty, the fact that they live up the block from a shelter full of homeless, occasionally violent junkies, and Wright’s desire to dress, act, and be treated as a boy, everything is pretty normal. In 1991, though, things start to change: the management of their apartment building, mindful of new city regulations, announces that the place will be gutted, and everyone will need to move:

The way Ma describes it, it’s like they rode in from Fourth Street on horseback. One day we are minding our own business in the asshole of the universe, and the next day these squares are galloping in, handing out bribes or slaughter as they go.

…’Unfortunately for all of us, either way the city is stepping in and putting its foot down. All the tenants will be temporarily relocated during the renovations to equally comfortable apartments until you can be moved back into your new houses.’

He tries to word this carefully, but when he says “comfortable”, half a dozen people snort and snicker. I’m thinking of the red-haired, pothead leprechaun with six pianos downstairs, and what comfort might mean to him, a kind of joy inconceivable to the man now speaking in American Dream bullshit platitudes. Or what it means to my mom, for whom comfort itself is a dirty word.

This is really the beginning of the end for the people who live in this building, and it seems to be the beginning of the end for Rhonna Wright, too. From this point onwards, she becomes increasingly angry, violent, even psychotic. Little iO has always known that her mom drinks a lot, but this is different, a darkness behind her eyes that frightens. She writes just enough scenes describing fights between her and her mother for us to get the idea: they are both incredibly strong-willed. Rhonna has always been her protector, but things are getting untenable. There’s never food. Rhonna starts cooking things and forgets about them. She hoards trash, newspapers, cardboard. The apartment is dark and difficult to navigate. iO sleeps on an army cot and is woken repeatedly, almost nightly, by her mother raging through the darkness, swearing, screaming.

The “best and worst move she will ever make” is the reporting of her mother’s condition to her school guidance counselor. Wright knows this will catapult her into the care of the city and the courts system, a bureaucracy against which her mother has fought all her life. She knows it will be seen as a betrayal, but she does not have a choice. Eventually, a court grants custody to her father, and she moves to Germany to live with him.

It’s a brief happiness: her father, too, has substance addiction problems, and her father’s girlfriend Julia eventually finds the whole situation too difficult to handle. When Julia finally snaps, pinning Wright to a car bonnet and screaming into her face on a freezing Christmas Eve, it’s a horrible scene, and if Wright’s terrible vulnerability wasn’t already clear to the reader, this part makes it so. She’s a tenacious, hot-tempered teenager, and she can’t have been easy to care for, but her life so far has lacked such a basic level of stability. Her father sends her to a progressive boarding school in England, where she finds the heady joys of first love with a German student called Nikita, but every summer, it’s a toss-up as to where Wright will end up, which country she’ll call home this year.

Clearly enough, what keeps her grounded (and, sometimes, alive) is her circle of friends. There’s Johnny, her Puerto Rican “brother” who leaves his leftovers on the table for her as a kid. There’s the girl she calls KGB, a beautiful Russian; there’s Nan, her larger-than-life godmother; there’s Frankie, a pot-smoking bohemian musician who moves into the flat Wright and Rhonna share in New York, and who can care for Rhonna with the objectivity that Wright cannot summon. There’s also Edie Tillett, Wright’s paternal grandmother, providing unconditional love and a bolthole over the years: her death, near the end of the book, is wrenching.

 Wright ends her memoir as she moves out of her mother’s apartment, aged twenty-two, looking for a new start and entering a new relationship. The copy I read was an unfinished proof; I hope that in the final book, perhaps in the Acknowledgments, there’s a sense of how Wright’s relationship with her mother currently stands. It’s clearly the strongest, most significant bond of her life, at least thus far; she never villainizes Rhonna, only tries to understand. (Her mother’s late-revealed dependence on Desoxyn explains a lot: combined with alcohol, it produces psychosis.) All the other people that love and support Wright, too, populate the background of this book, quiet but nevertheless present. That old saying is true, after all: friends are a family you choose.

Thanks very much to Grace Vincent at Virago for the review copy. Darling Days will be published in the UK on 27 September.

Meanwhile, At Litro: Victorians Decoded at Guildhall Art Gallery

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Despite the radio silence over the summer, I do still write for Litro. Last week I went to a review a TOTALLY FREE exhibition at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery, focusing on Victorian art and how it was affected by the advent of the telegraph. Here’s how it starts:

The curator in the pink dress is fielding my halting questions with aplomb. We have stopped in front of a medium-sized oil painting of a scene on board ship. It is a tangle of unnameable emotions and undefined relationships: a woman in a bath chair, perhaps an invalid, gazes into the middle distance as a sailor wearing a wedding ring addresses her from slightly behind and to the side, his arm curled around her chair in a manner that feels distinctly Mephistophelean. On a deckside bench nearby, another sailor—older and bearded—holds a newspaper, which he’s not reading, between his knees and looks disgruntled. His seat companion, an elderly gentleman with a top hat and watch chain, glances behind him with irritation at something out of view. Meanwhile, a little girl with a black velvet hair ribbon leans over the back of the bench: perhaps trying to read the newspaper that’s held out of her reach, perhaps importuning the elderly man (a grandfather? A guardian?). Behind them all, the riggings of this ship and a dozen others criss-cross the sky in whip-like lines of black paint. It is unspeakably claustrophobic. The curator is telling me that these lines are a direct allusion to the telegraph cables that had been placed under the Atlantic less than a decade before this painting was made, in 1873, by James Tissot. It is all about communication that cannot be decoded, glances that can’t be explained, eyelines that don’t line up. Everyone in this painting is trying to say something without saying it directly, and mostly, they are failing.

You can read the rest of the review here. I would be so chuffed if you did. (Plus, the exhibition is incredibly interesting – if you’re in London or the South of England, go!)

Love and Freindship [sic] and Other Youthful Writings, by Jane Austen

My temper is even, my virtues innumerable, my self unparalleled. Since such Sir is my character, what do you mean by wishing me to marry your Daughter?

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Jane Austen has basically always gotten a rough shake, because literary misogyny exists and anyone who writes about bonnets is always going to find herself dismissed by one half of humanity and read feverishly—but only for the bonnets—by half of the other half. The truth, of course, is less frilly and floral than the background for the photo above would suggest. Consensus on Austen for a while now has generally been that she was a shrewd and uncompromising chronicler of human hypocrisy and frailty; that she wrote with absolute clarity on the myriad foolishnesses of polite society but also that she understood them inside out; and that her “charming” marriage-based plots are a forensic examination of the legalized system of prostitution that found it acceptable to sell unmarried women to the highest bidder—and in which the women in question frequently colluded because their other choices were homelessness or humiliation as “companion” dependents of wealthier families.

This book is a collection of Austen’s juvenilia, work written when she was between the ages of eleven and nineteen. Christine Alexander, the editor of the Penguin volume, has laid them out in rough chronological order (more or less as they appear in Austen’s manuscript books). The advantage, obviously, is that you can see how Austen grew and developed, not just in terms of her prose becoming more complex and easily controlled, but also as she became more confident in her ability to handle a plot and as her satire became no less sharp, but significantly more subtle.

The stories from her pre-teen and early teenaged years are surprisingly excellent, however, because they give a sense of how unbounded and anarchic her imagination was. She was supposedly an excellent mimic, loved parlor games and charades, and that vivacious goofiness is so evident in pieces like “Frederic and Elfrida”. Here she gleefully mocks the conventions of sentimental novels (then very much in vogue) by writing a group of young women who fall into raptures of adoring friendship the moment they see each other, who are constantly obliging one another with snatches of trite pastoral song, and one of whom accepts two marriage proposals so as not to cause offense to either suitor. Their claims of intimacy are burlesqued by their deeply unladylike conduct towards each other: “From this period,” Austen writes,

the intimacy between the Families…daily increased till at length it grew to such a pitch, that they did not scruple to kick one another out of the window on the slightest provocation.

Years later, when writing “Catharine, or the Bower”, and also “Lady Susan”, she recycles this idea in the characters of young men who use the informality of friendship as a shield against charges of quite astonishing rudeness that include inviting themselves, unasked, to the homes of people who don’t actually know them.

I also particularly enjoyed “Jack and Alice”, whose heroine tosses off bumpers of claret with extreme alacrity (young unmarried women would, first of all, not have been offered claret, which was a strong, heavy red wine, and secondly, would have been expected to sip at their glasses—not down the whole thing at once, as Alice does.) And “The Beautifull Cassandra” is a glorious, ridiculous story comprising four pages in which our heroine (who shares a name with Austen’s sister) steals a bonnet from her family’s shop, wanders around London committing various acts of vandalism and fraud, and then returns to the bosom of her family quite content. Her attitude towards paying for goods and services is especially anarchic:

She then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry-cook and walked away.

…Being returned to the same spot of the same Street she had set out from, the Coachman demanded his Pay. She searched her pockets over again and again; but every search was unsuccessfull [sic]. No money could she find. The man grew peremptory. She placed her bonnet on his head and ran away.

“Love and Freindship” [sic], meanwhile, is a particularly excellent satire on the sentimental, focusing on two women who commit acts of the most appalling selfishness, cruelty and criminality, and blame everything on their deep “Sensibility of Mind”. When a carriage containing their long-lost husbands overturns in front of them (it’s a long story, okay), they enact responses of horror that suggest, indeed, sentimentality, but are not exactly practical:

Yes, dearest Marianne, they were our Husbands. Sophia shreiked [sic] and fainted on the Ground—I screamed and instantly ran Mad. We remained thus mutually deprived of our Senses some minutes, and on regaining them were deprived of them again—. For an Hour and a Quarter did we continue in this unfortunate Situation—Sophia fainting every moment and I running Mad as often—.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist the image of our narrator Laura dashing wildly to and fro, waving her arms in the air and frothing at the mouth, as Sophia swoons and revives repeatedly in the background like some kind of interval in a Loony Tunes episode.

It turns out that one of the men has survived, but the women become aware of this too late, and instead of providing him with prompt medical attention, they demand that he recite “what has befallen you” since they were separated (another trope of sentimental fiction: long stories-within-stories as every new acquaintance does a huge info-dump on their background and life history.) Before he can begin his tale, of course, the poor man expires.

This is all very entertaining, and in places, very sharp, but it’s “Lady Susan” (recently made into a film under the name “Love and Friendship”) that represents the pinnacle of Austen’s young writing. Written in the epistolary style of Samuel Richardson, whom Austen idealized, it is primarily told from the point of view of Lady Susan Vernon, a recent widow who is, we quickly realize, on the hunt for a husband again. She is in disgrace as a result of her conduct at Langford, the home of her friends; at no point is this ever fully explained, but through her letters and those of her sister-in-law, Catherine Vernon, it becomes evident that she has seduced Mr. Manwaring, a married man, away from his wife. Since Manwaring would not be free to marry her unless his wife had died (an event which Lady Susan and her friend Alicia Johnson certainly mull over the idea of hastening), she fixes her sights on another young man: Reginald De Courcy, brother of her dead husband’s sister-in-law.

Lady Susan is a fantastic character: beautiful, manipulative, extremely intelligent, and totally amoral. She takes great delight in confounding the prejudices of Reginald, who has already heard stories about her that cast her in a bad light. Of him to Mrs. Johnson, Susan writes,

There is something about him that rather interests me, a sort of sauciness, of familiarity, which I shall teach him to correct. He is lively and seems clever, and when I have inspired him with greater respect for me than his sister’s kind offices have implanted, he may be an agreable [sic] Flirt.—There is exquisite pleasure in subduing an insolent spirit, in making a person pre-determined to dislike, acknowledge one’s superiority.

Instead of being coquettish when he is “familiar” (e.g. flirtatious) with her, she responds with gravity, dignity, and quietness. Reginald becomes convinced that the tales he heard were slanderous, and poor Catherine fails to convince him of their truth in time to stop him from becoming entangled. Meanwhile, Susan is maneuvering to get her daughter Frederica engaged to the somewhat simple Sir James Martin—not because she cares about Frederica’s happiness, but in order to get her off of her hands—and engages in a campaign of what we’d now call gaslighting to prevent anyone else from taking Frederica’s concerns seriously. Fortunately, Catherine Vernon’s efforts are more successful here; Frederica is saved from a soul-crushing marriage and becomes, essentially, the ward of her aunt and uncle.

Lady Susan, of course, receives her comeuppance, though to tell you how this happens would ruin the pleasure of reading the story. In a way, too, reading her downfall is a disappointment. She is too deeply unpleasant a character for a reader to entirely invest in, but her pursuit of her own satisfactions is so unabashed, and so cleverly strategized, that to read her letters is like peering inside the head of Thackeray’s Becky Sharp. She is one of English literature’s best villainesses; that her creator was not more than twenty is really proof, if any is still needed, that Austen was a literary genius.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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Lemon drizzle is a fine thing

  1. The number of unused Waitrose recipe cards I have is approaching the ridiculous, so I am cooking my way through them at the rate of one new recipe a week. Last week was pan-fried white fish with cannellini bean purée, which was nice but not overwhelming; this week was aloo gosht, which was bloody delicious.
  2. The principle holds true for my Peyton & Byrne British Baking book, which I bought from the Hampton Court Palace gift shop in 2013 for some silly amount of money (£20? Sounds about right) and which I had barely baked from at all until this year. So far, chocolate hazelnut cookies and lemon drizzle cake have met with extreme satisfaction all round. Next, jam roly-poly, which I have had to promise won’t be “like the ones we had to eat at school”.
  3. I have never learned to cycle. So I am learning now. In London. Without a helmet. Such fun! (It’s okay, I haven’t yet graduated from riding round and round a low-traffic residential square. We’re currently working on how to signal left. My ability to do this is limited by the tendency of the bike to jink wildly whenever I remove one hand from the handlebars. I am told that I need to “learn to steer with one hand”. Sounds like witchcraft.)
  4. This book I am writing… I can’t guarantee that the above-mentioned baking and cooking isn’t just displacement activity. Likewise my newfound intense desire to catalogue all the books in our sitting room. Writing 1,000 words a day is taking a lot longer each day than it did a few weeks ago. At least it’s interesting to see where I’ve hit the wall (at roughly 34,000 words); I wonder if it’s standard. Like the mid-term depression we used to call “fifth week blues” at university.
  5. Regarding careers: at what point do you stop trying to get the thing that you want, because it’s taken you three years to even be in a position to try and you can’t afford to try for much longer and really very little is happening and everyone is telling you it’s a hard industry to get into and you’re becoming more disillusioned about the industry itself by the day but maybe that’s just the bitterness talking? I mean, hypothetically. For a friend. Suggestions welcomed with open arms.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous; link up, link back, say hi.

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein

When you come right to it, it’s a lot easier to die than it is to use your head.

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This was the very last of my holiday reading books, although I had been back from my holiday for several weeks before I finished it. My friend JonBoy told me to read this years ago—I think we were still in high school when he recommended it—but my first exposure to it was from the movie made in 1997. What most people know is that the film is almost nothing like the book; Paul Verhoeven satirizes the military society that Heinlein describes, where only combat veterans are permitted to vote and the expansion of humanity across the stars is as god-given a right as Manifest Destiny was to the settlers of the American West. The book is still fascinating, though: indeed, its interest lies precisely in its extremely right-wing politics, because the thought processes behind this society are overwhelmingly rational. The problem with them is that they are founded on premises that we now (mostly) believe to be erroneous.

The book follows Johnny Rico, heir to an immense manufacturing fortune, who signs up for military service along with his best friend from high school, Carl. (One of the many things that’s different about the book: Rico barely sees Carl after they join up, and hears later that he’s been killed in action. In the film, the Carl character is played by Neil Patrick Harris and his ability as an empath makes him an increasingly scary rising star in military R&D.) In theory, Rico is being trained as an infantryman, a mud foot, a grunt—almost but not quite cannon fodder—to take part in wars against the Bugs. The Bugs are generally described as being arachnoid, but they’re not:

They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s idea of a giant, intelligent spider, but their organization, psychological and economic, is more like that of ants or termites; they are communal entities, the ultimate dictatorship of the hive.

(Spot the extreme manifestation of Communism! This was written in 1959 and you can kind of tell.)

There are workers, warriors, brains, and queens in Bug society. Workers are harmless and infantrymen don’t waste time or ammo on them. Warriors are the terrifying ones; brains and queens are both hidden underground. The ultimate aim of Rico’s final mission—and the primary focus of the 1997 film—is an attempt to capture either a brain or a queen, in order to learn more about them and possibly trade them for human captives.

What’s interesting about the book is the distinct impression you get that Heinlein really doesn’t care very much about his plot. The final mission, which is by far the most exciting section of the novel (apart from the in medias res first chapter), takes up about sixty pages in a book of 275. The vast majority of the rest of it is comprised of two things: detailed writing about life in the infantry and about the army in general, and expository chunks cunningly disguised as discussions in Rico’s History & Moral Philosophy classes. (The technique is a lot like the bits of Nineteen Eighty-Four that are supposed to be from Emmanuel Goldstein’s book.)

Amazingly, Heinlein makes both sorts of section interesting. Infantry training—any kind of military training—is primarily psychological. Heinlein himself graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis and was a naval officer, and although he’s writing about the army (and therefore has his characters evincing a tribal scorn for Navy men), the principles of training members of either service are very similar. When he writes about the techniques used to mould men into a fighting unit, you can see the beginnings of the political philosophy that shapes both Starship Troopers and, I think, the worldview of many right-wing voters:

It was the firm opinion of every recruit that this was sheer meanness, calculated sadism, fiendish delight of witless morons in making other people suffer.

It was not. It was too scheduled, too intellectual, too efficiently and impersonally organized to be cruelty for the sick pleasure of cruelty; it was planned like surgery for purposes as unimpassioned as those of a surgeon. Oh, I admit that some of the instructors may have enjoyed it but I don’t know that they did—and I do know (now) that the psych officers tried to weed out any bullies in selecting instructors. They looked for skilled and dedicated craftsmen to follow the art of making things as tough as possible for a recruit; a bully is too stupid, himself too emotionally involved, and too likely to grow tired of his fun and slack off, to be efficient.

The dogma that being cruel to be kind is effective in areas of life other than military training is what underpins things like “bootstraps philosophy”, harsh prison sentences for relatively minor misdemeanors (i.e. New York City’s “broken windows policy”), and welfare reform that disqualifies all but the most abjectly poverty-stricken from government assistance. The idea that the only people qualified to bring such policies to fruition are those clever enough to be disengaged is what spawns public servants like Michael Gove.

Not that a Gove figure has any place in the world of Starship Troopers, where you cannot even stand for office unless you have served a term of duty in the armed forces.

None of the rhetoric actually struck me as new or particularly horrifying for quite a long time, and given what I knew of Heinlein’s political reputation, I was surprised by this. Much of what he says makes a certain amount of sense even—especially—to the historically oppressed (e.g. non-white, non-male, non-cissexual people). Like this:

Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms.

That’s one of Starship Troopers‘ most famous quotations, and if you look at it with thoroughly objective eyes, it is not wrong. Violence is our go-to solution, from the individual and immature (punch our brother for his toy truck) to the collective and political (invade a neighboring country for its oil). It’s not nice, and there do exist other ways of arbitrating disputes, but violence in one form or another is a trump card that either side of an argument always knows it can play.

What did make me flinch, and where Heinlein is pretty clearly working with facts we’d now consider outdated, is his defense of corporal and capital punishment. In a History & Moral Philosophy class, the instructor’s entire argument rests on the legitimacy of a simile between a misbehaving human youth and a puppy that needs training.

“These children were often caught; police arrested batches every day. Were they scolded? Yes, often scathingly. Were their noses rubbed in it? Rarely. News organs and officials usually kept their names secret—in many places the law so required for criminals under eighteen. Were they spanked? Indeed not! Many had never been spanked even as small children; there was a widespread belief that any punishment involving pain did a child permanent psychic damage…

“While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment—and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution.”

This is a perfectly logical line of reasoning if the premise is sound—if it is in fact true that nothing is a better, more effective deterrent for children and young adults than physical pain and humiliation—but it isn’t true; every behavioral study we have on juvenile psychology supports the opposite conclusion.

I have always found it difficult to handle writing like this, because it feels too much like a free pass for bigotry if I just label it “old-fashioned” and consider it no more. The Chaos, when I mentioned it to him, made a helpful suggestion: that the difference between someone truly being “of their era” and someone being “objectively” racist, sexist, reactionary, etc. is how they react when confronted with contradictory evidence. I suppose you’d have to read interviews with Heinlein at a later stage in his life (he died in 1988) to determine whether his views adapted; I haven’t done that, so I can’t write him off as a libertarian loon just yet. And I would very much like to read Stranger In a Strange Land (themes: culture shock, colonialism, nature vs. nurture) and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (AI sentience, anarchy). Heinlein’s talent for explaining the subculture of the infantry, and the promising nature of his plot in Starship Troopers—even if he doesn’t make the most of it—suggests that his less overtly political novels might be real winners.

Flash Book Sale!

As I mentioned earlier in the summer, I now have a secondhand bookshop on Amazon, where I sell books—many of them never-opened hardbacks—for cheapsies. I’m currently trying to free up some storage space, and have selected some of the books I’ve had around for a few months to be sacrificed to the Great Gods of Oxfam. They’ll be heading there on Monday… unless one of you wants one or more of them.

These will be on offer from now until Monday (12 September) at 12:00 pm (that’s noon) GMT. Here’s a link to my Amazon bookshop, where you can buy one of them* (or you can buy something else if it takes your fancy. I ain’t fussy.)

*I can’t sell or ship outside of the UK, I’m afraid (taxes make it not worthwhile).

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Highly attractive stripey vase not included

Making Nice, by Matt Sumell – Meet Alby. Natural habitat: a bar; a boat; his bedroom; a broad’s bedroom. Favourite hobbies: starting fights (then losing them); hooking up with broads (then losing them); hating cats (it’s a skill); training Gary the baby bird to be a killer (sort of). Best kept secret: when his mum died it broke his heart and he doesn’t really know what to do about it.

Daredevils, by Shawn Vestal – Fundamentalist Mormonism meets Evel Knievel in a 1970s coming-of-age tale that is all the better for subtly flicking the Vs at gender expectations, and for making religious extremism comprehensible. I really, really enjoyed this and would recommend it highly.

Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas – Thomas is a beautiful poet. He’s gnarly and alliterative, but he is beautiful. “Poem in October”, “Fern Hill”, and “In the White Giant’s Thigh” are probably my favorites for their sensuality and expressiveness.

Summerlong, by Dean Bakropoulos – A story about a marriage falling apart, this one foregrounding problems like debt, boredom, loneliness, and lying to someone you love out of a desire to protect them, and also maybe out of inertia. If you start to miss the warm months as the fall progresses, this will be the book to remind you of them again.

Birth of a Bridge, by Maylis de Kerangal – The mayor of a small Southern California town decides to make his mark by building an enormous bridge, but as workers flood into the area from all over the globe, the legacy of the area’s Native Americans is threatened. De Kerangal is most famous for Mend the Living, her recent novel about the transplant of a heart, and Birth of a Bridge is another almost mythic exploration of human passions and weaknesses.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

  1. Ceilidhs are the best. (For non-UK folk, see this definition of a ceilidh. English people quite often have them for weddings, birthdays, anniversary celebrations, etc., even if they’re not of Scottish/Irish ancestry.) They’re wonderful because you can spend your night dancing, but you don’t have to worry about being “a good dancer” or having a big shakeable Beyoncé booty or anything; you literally follow instructions. And the music is absolutely infectious. My friend and former college organ scholar, Tim, had one last weekend for his 21st and it reminded me that I need to find a Burns Night celebration, either here or in Oxford, to attend in January.
  2. In other friend news, the lovely Esther is having a baby this month (omgomgomg); she and her husband Bojan have just found out it’s a girl (OMGOMGOMG), and I’ve been granted godmotherly rights and privileges with regards to it/her (OMGOMGOMG). Baby showers aren’t really a thing here, but my fellow godmother Aileen organised one anyway, and we spent quite some time trying to whittle their current baby-girl-name list down from 24 to a manageable one or two (or four). It is a delight and a joy to be a godmother-in-waiting, but I am just really hoping that I don’t fail. I think as long as I don’t actually turn the baby into a Satanist, it’s okay?
  3. Here is a list of things that have made me cry recently: the idea of having to phone up my bank. Being unable to execute a key maneouvre in a computer game. Forgetting the PIN to my infrequently used debit card. Writing a constructor for a vector in JavaScript. Having a dream about the complex legal maneouvres required to satisfactorily disburse the contents of a will. (I have no clue.)
  4. Autumn means STATIONERY! Specifically, it means GETTING A NEW PAPER DIARY, because even though Google Calendar is great, I can’t use it for my to-do lists. This year I’m saving money by using one of the (pile of) old hardbacked exercise books in the Chaos’s desk drawers. It’s light blue and college-ruled and I can make my own week-to-view layout, just as I like it. I am thrilled.
  5. If you are not reading Bad Machinery, why not?! It is a webcomic by John Allison about mystery-solving teens at a Yorkshire grammar school. If you’re a fan of Kate Beaton, you’ll love it: Allison draws hilarious faces and does a fine line in witty dialogue in exactly the same way. The mild supernatural flavour to the mysteries plus the spot-on observations about teenaged social behaviour makes it like an addictive Netflix series, only you’re supporting an independent artist by reading. Go on go on go onnnnn. Here, I’ve linked to the very beginning for you.
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The main cast of Bad Machinery

Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous

The point is to tell you how I purged myself of my sins against women, and indeed, against myself.

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I almost didn’t read this book at all. Its very first line is “I liked hurting girls”, and the second line is “Mentally, not physically.” If you’ve spent much time around here at all, you’ll know that I have personal experience of men who like hurting girls mentally-not-physically, and that I don’t have a whole lot of time for that anymore. Furthermore, The Pool describes the whole book as “as hipster as a £3 bowl of Rice Krispies on Shoreditch High Street.” So, am I its ideal reader? Is it even remotely my aesthetic? Hell to the no. And did it completely redeem itself in my eyes? Not completely. But there are parts of it that I think are very valuable. They just might not be the parts the author intended.

Something that might comfort you (it did me) is that although this is written by “Anonymous”, although the narrator presents it as a memoir, and despite all of the seductive marketing around it that suggests its author has embarked on a decade-long guerrilla social media campaign, it is not non-fiction. It is a novel written by a Dutch person and originally published in Amsterdam ten years ago. Its narrator is an Irishman living in London and then in Minnesota. The knowledge that this particular Irishman does not actually exist was, in places, the only thing that kept me reading. He is not very nice. You can gather this from the first sentence, and also from the part where he talks about purging himself of his sins against women. Handy hint: if you’re a man and you want to purge yourself of your sins against women, you will never be able to. You will never be forgiven.

The blurb compares the narrator to Holden Caulfield, a comparison which I guess derives from prose like this:

Also, I’m completely paranoid. I mean, seriously paranoid. Not just mildly interested in the fact that there may be people who don’t necessarily have my best interests at heart. No. The word is “paranoid”. Another word is “self-centered”. I don’t like that one as much, though. Doesn’t sound medical enough.

The thing is that writing like this is totally passable to a lot of people. It achieves the effect of being wry and conversational and ironic. Millennials and hipsters like these things. And they’re not as easy as you might think: there’s an art to being casual. I’m unwilling to call this the inheritor of Salinger’s mantle, though. Holden is a lot more innocent than this guy. Holden is not calculating anything for effect. He’s not jaded or cynical. He kind of wants to be, but he’s just too young to be there yet. Our oxygen thief, on the other hand, is plenty jaded, and so instead of being a howl of raw adolescent longing and confusion, his anger and bitterness curdles.

This, however, is where the book becomes valuable, at least to me, because what the oxygen thief does par excellence is describe the myriad horrors of corporate culture. He works for an advertising agency in London, but gets headhunted for an agency based in Saint Lacroix, Minnesota. (We will gloss over the fact that a “Saint Lacroix” is unlikely, since “Lacroix” means “the Cross”. I reckon he’d have done better to call his Minnesotan town either Lacroix on its own, or Saint Something-Else. /digression) During his phone interview, he tells the interviewer

…that I was at the age where I was thinking about getting married. There followed a long moment of silence, which could only be satisfactorily explained by him punching the air in triumph and straightening his clothes before continuing. He began to talk like someone I’d known for years, dropping all use of the conditional tense in favor of the future.

When he arrives in America, the ad agency helps him out with the purchase of a beautiful old Victorian house, which turns out to be a major millstone. He only wants to be in the States for a year or two at the most, but suddenly here he is with a mortgage. He thinks of it, initally, as an investment, money he can make back when he sells. But then the house doesn’t sell. And his boss starts to point out to him the eligible girls in the office. When he doesn’t come to the Christmas party, the agency arranges for two ice sculptures to be placed either side of his front door. You can see pretty clearly why someone might begin to feel paranoid in this environment. And then there’s this, which is one of those observations that so neatly encapsulates a difference, you actually want to put the book down and gaze into the middle distance for a minute or two:

[In Minnesota] there also seemed to be a great deal of pride in the bulbous nature of a pregnant belly, a phenomenon I had not yet encountered. In London, pregnancy was associated with failure and social death. Here it was encouraged. People got promoted after having a kid. A little fleshy anchor prevented the minds of America’s corporate soldiers from drifting too far from its assignments.

Weird pronoun inconstencies in the final sentence aside, how spot on is that? Can you even imagine getting a promotion after procreating in this country? Lololololol, as a university friend of mine would say. Not that it doesn’t happen sometimes, but please look at these case studies if you’re under the illusion that it’s standard. In the US, however, the fear of poverty and the pressing need to save up for a kid’s university tuition from the minute they’re born makes parents fantastic employees. A parent will put up with all kinds of workplace bullshit to guarantee their baby’s college fund.

And our oxygen thief’s cynicism actually works really well in this environment: he notices things that most other people are too polite or too embarrassed or too idealistic to mention. For instance: the gross imbalance that enables major charities to be absolutely huge (think of all the LA and New York charity balls!) is largely down to consumers and taxpayers. Which is to say, you and me.

Every ad agency likes to have a charity on their books for which they’ll pull all sorts of outlandish favours… There are tax concessions and write-offs. But it’s important which charity you affiliate yourself with. …For instance, a charity that raises funds to help addicts get off heroin isn’t nearly as reliable or photogenic or even pitiable as one that treats kids with AIDS. Adults with AIDS are no good. It could be their own fault. …Sorry, but it’s true.

Whoever this Dutch guy is, he’s clearly spent time in the States, because this is exactly how American public morality works. “Adults with AIDS are no good. It could be their own fault.” That bit really deserves to be quoted twice; it’s so cruelly accurate.

Supposedly, the main point of this book is how he gets his heart broken by a cruel bitch of a girl who does to him exactly what he did to all those other women, back when he was an alcoholic and a Bad Guy. And in many ways, that is a glorious trajectory. Aisling, the villainess, is a million times smarter and more ambitious than our narrator; she’s like a modern-day Becky Sharp. In fact, I’d have preferred that comparison to the Lolita one on the back cover (and it strikes me as weirdly distasteful, too, since Lolita is an underage victim of a creepy rapist, and Aisling is a fully autonomous vengeful goddess. You can hardly draw parallels between the two of them. Lolita was never a vamp; she was a kid.)

But to be honest, that story—the story of an asshole who gets his comeuppance—it’s not a new story. It’s not told, here, in a particularly new or exciting way. Don’t read Diary of an Oxygen Thief for the personal relationships. Read it for the distressingly bright light it shines on the way companies manipulate people: the ones who work for them, and the ones who buy the stuff they flog. If this book is “hipster”, and if “being hipster” now means “making people want to advocate the violent overthrow of capitalism”, then okay. I’m down for that.

Thanks very much to Poppy Stimpson at Corsair Books for the review copy. Diary of an Oxygen Thief was published in the UK on 25 August.

09-15 of 20 Books of Summer

20 Books of Summer Collage

I made this collage on Picmonkey and I am so ridiculously proud of it

WHOOPS.

To be completely honest with you, I got to book #15, and then shit happened—other books I needed to review, holidays, that pesky novel I need to write—so although I’ve read waaaayyy more than 20 books this summer, I am very unlikely to finish the 20 Books of Summer, if you follow me. Still, it’s a super project, very worth attempting, and I’m definitely going to try it again next year! (Plus, because I’ve decided to DNF one of them—I can’t read Dylan Thomas’s collected poems all the way through, sorry—and to not worry about another—a monograph from the Royal Academy on Jean-Étienne Liotard, which I’ll enjoy reading in snatches but which is too bulky to be practical as an everyday book—I only have three books left to read, and I’m sure I can knock those out before the fall is too far advanced…)

Brief reviews follow.

book_2909. When I Lived in Modern Times, by Linda Grant

Where I read it: Mostly on the Tube, I think, over about two days.

I liked everything about the premise for this one: Evelyn Sert is an orphaned hairdresser, aged twenty, who decides to move from Soho to the new state of Palestine. Once there, she becomes embroiled with a mysterious man named Johnny, who it turns out is a spy and a student militant, and their romance has serious repercussions for them both.

Things that were great about it: The setting is beautifully evoked. Tel Aviv in the 1940s and ’50s must have been an absolute shock to the system for a girl raised in grey post-war London. The Bauhaus architecture, the café culture, the brilliance of lemons and oranges against the whiteness of the houses; it’s all very well done. Equally, the snobbish attitude of the British wives whose husbands work for the protectorate in Palestine is well conveyed. Evelyn’s job at the salon is dependent on these women continuing to believe that she herself is 100% British, and the awkwardness of trying to conceal her Jewish identity in a place that seems designed to celebrate it is a really nice touch.

Things that could have been better: Everything about the espionage plot, really. Evelyn is quite a passive character, so it makes sense that she should do and know so little, but a) that means we don’t really know her, even by the book’s end, and b) it means that the dénouement comes as rather a surprise. We know Johnny’s up to something, but we hardly know what, and the ending feels a bit unearned.

cover-jpg-rendition-460-70710. Chronicles, by Thomas Piketty

Where I read it: Over the course of a lazy, hair-twirling, coffee-drinking Saturday.

This is a collection of Piketty’s financial columns which he wrote for a French newspaper. They’ve clearly been released on the back of his success with Capital in the Twenty-first Century, which means a lot of them are out of date. What’s interesting about them, though, is how scarily prescient they appear to a reader in 2016. He’s writing from 2012 about Greece and the IMF, but a lot of what he says about the Euro, and how it can best be stabilized, and what will happen if it isn’t, resonates with alarming clarity in the post-Brexit atmosphere. Essentially, Piketty predicted Brexit too, saying that if the situation in central Europe wasn’t changed for the better by decisive action from the European Parliament—mostly France and Germany—and the IMF, lack of confidence in the European project would be the result. And… yep, that’s exactly what happened.

All of which makes me think that we really ought to be paying attention to whatever Piketty is saying now.

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11. Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

Where I read it: On the train to Hitchin, where the Progenitors Chaotic live, and on the train back again.

I read this book too fast. In my defense, it’s hard not to. It’s short, the prose flies by. Robinson is known for the beauty and the quasi-Biblical rhythms of her writing, and that’s certainly true; there’s an eerie luminescence that surrounds my memory of Housekeeping that I think is only attributable to that incredible quality in the writing. I don’t remember noticing it much at the time, but I remember it making an impact on me nonetheless.

It is about two orphaned sisters, Ruth and Lucille Stone, and their lives in the Idaho town of Fingerbone. Their aunt Sylvie comes to care for them. Sylvie is not a domesticated creature, even by the somewhat more relaxed standards of our day; Housekeeping, it’s implied, is set sometime mid-20th-century, and the good men and women of Fingerbone hardly know what to do with Sylvie at all. She doesn’t clean. She doesn’t tidy. She’s a hoarder and a wanderer and a wild-haired sprite, a former homeless woman, a rider in railroad cars. Ruth loves this. Ruth clings to her. Lucille doesn’t; she goes to live with a teacher, a woman who has doilies on her tables and a clean, full, well-lit larder. Fearful of being removed by Child Protection, Ruth escapes with Sylvie across frozen Fingerbone Lake, and they both become travelers. Occasionally they pass through the town again, riding the rails.

It’s basically a novel about family, about what home can mean, and as Robert McCrum puts it, “Robinson believes in family.” This is a good book to have read a few months after reading another of her novels, Lila, which also addresses the question of the families we’re born into and the families we choose, or which are thrust upon us, or which we build for ourselves. While Housekeeping has a more overtly dark edge (I spent pages waiting for something cataclysmic to occur; I was amazed that all of the characters got out of it alive), it too is preoccupied with choosing family, with the statements that your choice makes.

978022409002512. The Father, by Sharon Olds

Where I read it: Commuting, again. God, this is getting dull.

Poetry is so fucking hard to write about, it tends to put me off reading it, or at least it puts me off reading it for this blog. In brief: this is a collection of poems in which the narrator is a daughter tending to her dying father. He has cancer. Their relationship has not been a positive or a loving one; as Adam Mars-Jones noted in a London Review of Books essay on Olds’s poetry, “the depth of the poems is inversely proportionate to the richness of the relationship. The poet is so attentive to her father’s dying because in his living he so comprehensively refused her.”

So, yeah, not exactly happy stuff, but supremely, superbly powerful. Olds is one of those poets who writes in a manner that looks conversational and absolutely isn’t. She doesn’t do syntactical inversion, heightened diction, alliteration, any of that bag-of-tricks stuff. She just selects and places words so that their context gives them grandeur. I’d love to be able to do it myself. I will never be a poet that good.

51n8dqdd2wl13. Raw Spirit, by Iain Banks

Where I read it: On the bus from Crouch End to Finsbury Park, after a marathon OITNB session with my friend Ella, formerly known on this blog as the Duchess.

This book suffers appallingly from two interrelated things: an excess of privilege, and a deficit of self-awareness. Iain Banks was commissioned to do a tour of Scotland’s single malt distilleries and write a full-length travelogue detailing his search for “the perfect dram” (see subtitle). It’s a great idea. It’s the sort of thing that editors stopped having the money or the free time to do, circa 2003, which coincidentally is when this book was published. And it’s the kind of all-expenses-paid vanity project that you really, really need to be humble about, if you’re lucky enough to land the gig. Banks isn’t humble. He preens. He mentions that he’s been commissioned, that the whisky is all on his publisher, that none of his junkets are leaving him out of pocket, at least once a chapter.

He also doesn’t really seem to take the brief all that seriously. On the one hand, it’s hard to blame him for this: his descriptive skills are good, but come on, it’s whisky, innit. It’s smokey and peaty and maybe a bit salty and occasionally you can throw in some words like “caramel” or “toasted orange”, but on the whole it’s going to be difficult to describe fifty of the buggers in anything like a distinctive fashion. On the other hand, there were times when so very little of this book had anything to do with whisky that it honestly felt like he was taking the piss. Like the five pages about a Jaguar he once had, followed by a cursory page and a half on a distillery’s history and product. Or the long anecdotes about his friends and what they’re like when they’re drunk. Real talk: no one is a hilarious drunk to a stranger. Reading about how they got in trouble (tee hee hee, boys will be boys) for making too much noise in a family hotel after-hours did not make me sympathetic. It didn’t even make me think, “What a legend.” It made me think, “What an arsehole.”

So anyway, long story short is, I’m going to read Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games and forget that I ever took this irritating detour into their author’s personal life/head.

18071176-_uy200_14. The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O’Connor

Where I read it: Literally no idea. Perhaps it gave me amnesia?

Tell you what, O’Connor really doesn’t fuck around with her titles.

This is her second novel. Her first, Wise Blood, had already established her thematic interests: evangelical Christianity, confused young men, violence and grace, the human fear and loathing and rejection of Christ and His implacability. It’s fairly serious stuff; you can’t really go into it half-heartedly. Even if you have issues with Christian belief or are simply an atheist, you need to take on board the premise that these beliefs are significant and important for the people you’re reading about. Otherwise none of it makes any sense at all, and even for me – raised in a church tradition, though not a fundamentalist one – it sometimes gets a bit bewilderingly intense.

The Violent Bear It Away focuses on Francis Marion Tarwater, who was abducted from his family home as a baby by his mother’s brother. Determined to make the little boy into a prophet of the Lord, old Tarwater raises him in a rural backwater and keeps him away from school (by getting him to pretend he’s mentally disabled when the truant officer comes around). When old Tarwater dies, young Tarwater moves to the city in search of his other uncle, and has to determine whether to live as his religious uncle raised him or as his secular uncle wants to make him. It asks a lot of questions about freedom: spiritual, intellectual, moral. O’Connor doesn’t really believe in freedom, or at least not in the way that most of the people reading her probably do. She believes in God, though, in the ultimateness of Him. So it hasn’t got what you might call a happy ending, but it has an ending full of conviction. Reading O’Connor gives me a much stronger sense of what motivated a Joan of Arc or a Thomas Cranmer: the solid reality of that kind of belief.

4125be3z3vl-_sx310_bo1204203200_ 15. The Idea of Perfection, by Kate Grenville

Where I read it: Lying on the bed, the window open to catch whatever breeze was going in southwest London, the week before my holiday.

Kate Grenville won the Orange Prize for this in 2001, and she followed it up with The Secret River, which means I should really have read her by now. It served both for 20 Books of Summer and for my less formal Women’s Prize project, and, like most of the (relatively) early Women’s Prize winners I’ve read, it was a fantastic surprise.

It follows two awkward people (imperfection, you see): Harley Savage, a museum curator who specializes in textiles, and Douglas Cheeseman, a structural engineer who adores cement. Both are in Karakarook, New South Wales, Harley to advise on the development of a heritage museum and Douglas to oversee the destruction of a historic bridge. Obviously, these are conflicting aims, and the townspeople expect Harley and Douglas to be at loggerheads. To begin with, they are, sort of, but both are at odds with the expectations leveled at them by daily life and society in general, and this brings them together.

What’s brilliant about it: the sheer dedication that Grenville puts into her portrayal of imperfect people. Harley and Douglas go on a “first date” to a genuinely horrible rural greasy spoon café, where they manage to misunderstand one another and second-guess their own reactions to a point that is, frankly, painfully familiar to anyone with even mild social anxiety. Also, I love how she deals with the “woman with a past” trope in relation to Harley, who suffers horrible guilt from something that was 100% not her fault but nevertheless pretty horrible. Grenville is so good at not making her a bombshell or a sex object while also not painting her as a gargoyle or a grotesque (though that’s how Harley thinks of herself.) This is counterpointed by the story of a bank manager’s wife who embarks on an affair with the local butcher, pretending that her marriage is perfect while we know it’s a sham. That storyline ends with a twist that is so tame by today’s Gone Girl standards, and yet so perfectly conveyed in the prose, that I actually gasped. It’s emblematic of the lovely balancing act Grenville achieves throughout the book. And the ending is very joyous.

When I Lived in Modern Times, Linda Grant. (London: Granta, 2011 [2000])

Chronicles, Thomas Piketty. (London: Viking, 2016)

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson. (London: Faber & Faber, 2005)

The Father, Sharon Olds. (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009 [1992])

Raw Spirit, Iain Banks. (London: Arrow, 2004 [2003])

The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor. (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007 [1960])

The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville. (London: Picador, 2002 [2001])