#6Degrees of Separation: Shopgirl

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

332592

First up: Shopgirl, a novella by Steve Martin about Mirabelle, a girl who works at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and tries to navigate a love triangle. It was made into a film, which just happened to star Steve Martin as the wealthy, debonair older man.

Another monological Martin vehicle, “Roxanne”, is based on the French play Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, about a charming and brilliant swashbuckler whose romantic prospects are scuppered only by the fact that he’s got an enormous, almost disfiguring, nose.

Facial disfigurement is a bit of a phobia of mine; in Tamora Pierce’s young adult novel Trickster’s Choice, the young protagonist Ally deliberately allows her nose to be broken in a fight when she’s captured as a slave, knowing that the uglier she is, the less likely it is that she’ll be bought for sex.

Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet constitute the only books I’ve read so much they’ve fallen apart, save for my copy of Little House on the Prairie, which was held together by packing tape by the time I was six.

A grown-up version of the Little House world is that conjured by Willa Cather, particularly in her gorgeous novel O Pioneers!, about a woman who inherits her immigrant family’s farm on the plains of Nebraska.

My favourite female farmer in literary history (except, perhaps, for Dick King-Smith’s Sophie) is, of course, Far From the Madding Crowd‘s Bathsheba Everdene (who doesn’t look like Carey Mulligan, jfc, this should be obvious to everyone. In my mind she actually looks a little bit like Mayim Bialik.)

So—from urban ennui to rural angst, from Beverly Hills to fictionalised Dorset via Gascony, the imaginary country of Tortall, and the Midwest! Where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month the chain starts with Picnic At Hanging Rock, which I’ve never read…

Advertisements

2016 In First Lines

I did a post like this two years ago, and forgot to repeat it last year. (Don’t worry; there’ll still be a good end-of-year roundup!) These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

51x1nhirorl-_sx310_bo1204203200_

January: “Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.” – American Housewife, by Helen Ellis. This somewhat manic collection of short stories, some very short indeed, tackles domestic femininity, pop culture, and societal double standards. It’s a little like a book version of Lucille from Arrested Development, delivering tart one-liners and clutching a martini. I didn’t love it, but I can respect what it was doing.

41d7ndbkxtl

February: “Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman’s head.” – Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson. Book one of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle—one of my favourite reading experiences this year—wherein we meet erstwhile member of the Royal Society Daniel Waterhouse, and follow him on the beginning of his mission to reconcile Newton and Leibniz.

cover

March: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.” – Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Nyer nyer, I read it before it was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Highsmith-esque noir plotting meets serious psychological ishoos; Eileen is an unforgettable character.

84fce744c35117e63f6593564a5546c93e4042d7a484dfb138fd14d9

April: “My name is Sister.” – Daughters of the North (published in the UK as The Carhullan Army), by Sarah Hall. An absolute belter of a book that takes the ideas of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and pushes them further, to more interesting places, than Atwood ever does. Another of 2016’s highlights.

9781844080403

May: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” – My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier. Start as you mean to go on, Daphne: ominous as all hell. This tale of a femme fatale—maybe—and a hapless young man—maybe—is an ideal stepping stone to the rest of du Maurier’s work after Rebecca.

9780140273328

June: “In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighbourhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn.” – A Crime in the Neighbourhood, by Suzanne Berne. What I loved about this book was how adroitly Berne makes us sympathise with a kid who does a cruel and terrible thing: how completely we enter her head.

02-the-queen-of-the-night-alexander-chee

July: “When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands.” – The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. I’ve raved about Chee’s book here before. Opulent, atmospheric, full of detail: it’s not only a great summer holiday read, but would make a great Christmassy one, too.

the_mare-xlarge_transt7iguzhdh7qagxundfobbuix8ojd6bitipitoctlxp0

August: “That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and hers turned away.” – The Mare, by Mary Gaitskill. A raw and absorbing book about Velveteen Vargas, a Dominican teenager, and the world of horse-riding to which she’s exposed during a Fresh Air Fund trip. How Gaitskill inhabits her characters so faithfully is beyond me, but I’m not complaining.

c836babd417bc41a990f6a706700b1b5

September: “I liked hurting girls.” – Diary of an Oxygen Thief, by Anonymous. One of the less impressive books I’ve read this year, in all honesty (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that opening gambit). More on that in an end-of-year post.

700-biaw-uk2016

October: “One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead for twenty-one years.” – Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. I was initially bowled over by this book, but Didi’s comments made me look at its use of sexual violence afresh, and I was a bit less pleased with it after that.

birds_a52

November: “On my 18th birthday my Uncle Keith took me to see Charlie Girl, starring the one and only Joe Brown, who I was in love with and was very much hoping to marry.” – Where Do Little Birds Go, by Camilla Whitehill. Whitehill’s words, plus the acting of Jessica Butcher in the production that I saw, combine to make this one-woman show about exploitation and power dynamics in the Kray twins’ London one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.

9781847089137

December: “There is a boy.” – Signs for Lost Children, by Sarah Moss. Moss’s latest novel, The Tidal Zone, was the first of hers I’ve read, but I honestly think Signs for Lost Children is better: in the late 1800s, Tom Cavendish and Ally Moberley, recently married, are separated by Tom’s engineering work, which takes him to Japan for a span of months. While he is gone, Ally, a qualified doctor, works at Truro women’s asylum. In each other’s absence, both of them must face their fears and, eventually, trust each other again.

So! What do these say about my reading this year? (Well, this year so far; December has hardly started.) Two-thirds of these titles are by female authors, though I went through phases of reading mostly men, then mostly women. None of the authors of colour I’ve read this year are represented, which suggests the limitations of this method (showcasing only the first book read in each month). Nor are the genres, which included a little more sci fi, fantasy, memoir and short story collections. What this selection does suggest, though, is that this was a good year for reading. There were very few books I didn’t enjoy at all, and many that I truly adored.

Soon to come: my top books of 2016, or The Year In Reading, to be followed by the year’s dishonourable mentions.

November Superlatives

I’ve sort of forgotten about the end of November. It seems to have been an infinite month, on and on and on, late nights, late shifts, weekends alone or away. It doesn’t feel like the end of anything, especially given that things are only going to get busier at the pub from now until New Year. I’ve read twelve books this month, though—some of them quite long. I won’t lie, there was definitely some post-election comfort reading going on.

most disproportionately affecting: By size, I mean. The playscript for Camilla Whitehill’s play Where Do Little Birds Go (which I reviewed at Litro) takes a quarter of an hour to read, but the play is haunting. A one-woman show that dramatises the experiences of Lucy Fuller, a barmaid kidnapped by the Kray twins in the 1960s, it’s spare, effective, and completely engrossing.

best glimpse of another world: Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, his writings about the years he spent in Southeast Asia collecting specimens of birds, insects and mammals. He’s thoughtful and reflective, but still a product of time; reading his ruminations about the “natural character” of the indigenous people is an insight into a mindset that may not be cruel but is still limited. His writings on landscape are beautiful.

51l9yrs252bsyl

most obscurely disappointing: There is nothing at all wrong with Fiona Melrose’s debut novel Midwinter. I just wanted more… juice, I said to Rebecca when she reviewed it, though I’m not sure that’s the right word. The story of a father and son struggling with the decade-old loss of mother and wife Cessie, it’s a quiet novel about quiet men, whose thoughts Melrose infiltrates and describes fluently. The writing is good. I can’t complain about it. I think it has been the victim of Twitter hype.

most relevant: The Dark Circle, Linda Grant’s new novel, which takes in the beginnings of the NHS and the global social changes of the 1950s, and leaves us believing that the strength of the individual character is our best hope. I reviewed it just after the US election and was comforted by its vision of a new, happy, modern life, despite the constant presence of the past.

warm bath books: The US election was hard. I woke up at eight the morning after, checked my phone, and began to cry, at which point the Chaos made me return to bed. I cried and demanded to be held and cried some more, went back to sleep for a few hours, woke up, cried again. I was very glad I had the day off. I read the second and third of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It had been years since I’d read them and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are not as intellectually antagonistic as I remembered; they are instead profoundly humane books, framing the human mind and human evolution as a source of wonder and power. They are soothing without being mindless or saccharine, and just about perfect.

51tni2bsm6ul-_sx325_bo1204203200_

weirdest: I think Shena Mackay just writes weird books, and her novel Dunedin, though the first of hers that I’ve read, is probably pretty representative. It’s a split timeframe—the first half is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand; the second half follows the descendants of our original protagonists in southeast London—but the New Zealand bit is short-changed in the word count, and the plot of the south London bit has no obvious centre. She writes the same kind of tactile, color-and-light-filled prose as A.S. Byatt, though, so I liked it anyway.

most potential: This is, I admit, a backhanded compliment indeed. Stephanie Victoire’s debut story collection, The Other World, It Whispers, addresses issues of gender and sexuality through a fantasy lens that is fueled by a huge imagination. I also, unfortunately, found it under-edited and uneven. Swings and roundabouts…

second most potential: Wendy Jones’s collection of interviews with English women about their sex lives (helpfully entitled The Sex Lives of English Women) is, yes, totally fascinating. She has a decent spread of age, class, race and preferences—there is a 19-year-old devout Muslim, a 33-year-old ex-Buddhist nun, a 94-year-old former Land Girl who recalls having sex by the side of the road—but I wanted a little more structure; the chapters read as transcriptions of one half of a conversation, which is a bit disorienting, as it sometimes is in magazine interviews.

61tv6bq2ail

best impulse buy: I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a book on the strength of one review, but I did it for Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, an anthology from The Economist whose subtitle tells you all you need to know. The museums range from the Pitt Rivers in Oxford to the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, via the Frick Collection, the ABBA Museum, Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and many more. The authors range from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Don Paterson, Ali Smith to Jacqueline Wilson. The essays are elegiac, descriptive, lyrical, hilarious, strange. A total treasure box.

best debut: Eric Beck Rubin’s novel School of Velocity, ONE Pushkin Press’s new release. The control Rubin exercises in this tale of charisma, friendship, music and obsession is worthy of a veteran novelist. I’m very interested to read his next book.

sport_of_kings-xlarge_transqfwj9fj1snjnbjmkevbwuyx9ce70g27bbuhlbezw2w8

big fat fucking awesome book: C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings has divided opinion since its release. Me, I like it. A chunkster indeed, but its tale of Thoroughbred horse racing, interwoven with a Southern family saga and the attendant agonies of racial prejudice right through to the present day, makes it all forgivable: its flaws are immense because its ambitions are immense, as someone once said of Dickens. I read it on many trains over about three days, and was delighted to have had it with me to pass the time.

up next: I’m reading Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children and loving it. I loved The Tidal Zone, so this is hardly surprising, but still.

 

2014 in First Lines

I was inspired to do this by this post at Annabel’s House of Books, but instead of quoting myself, I wanted to show a sliver of what I’ve been reading this year. These are the opening lines of the first book I’ve read each month, with a little bit about said book, and what I thought of it. Reach for your TBR lists now, because most of these were great.

January: “I was twelve years old the first time Master Georgie ordered me to stand stock still and not blink.”–Master Georgie, by Beryl Bainbridge. This is a tiny explosion of a book about the Crimean War, narrated from the point of view of the eponymous Georgie’s adoptive sister Myrtle, who follows him to war but has a terrible secret. I completely loved it. Start your New Year off right with this.

February: “I am staring at myself in a hotel bathroom mirror.”–This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited, by Justin Cartwright. One in a series of slim volumes called The Writer and the City, Cartwright’s book sees him returning to Oxford (where he was a student) some decades later, to discover how it and he have changed. As a recent graduate, I loved how clearly he describes the impact this city had on him, and identified completely with his love for and connection to it. Very much indulgence reading, because that’s what February is for.

March: “Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.”–Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens. Dickens for winter, always. I got to him late this season, but as usual it was worth it. There is the usual infuriating feminine martyrdom (in this case Florence Dombey, who is a poster child for emotional abuse and daddy issues), but the writing, as you can see, is ace.

April: “The dead die hard, they are trespassers on the beyond, they must take the place as they find it, the shafts and manholes back into the muck, until such time as the lord of the manor incurs through his long acquiescence a duty of care in respect of them.”–Echo’s Bones, by Samuel Beckett. Read for a review in Quadrapheme, and, as you may be able to deduce, pretty tough going, although I found deciphering Beckett’s fevered musings pretty rewarding too.

May: “I’ve been called Bone all my life, but my name’s Ruth Anne.”–Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. Be careful with this book: an intense, frightening depiction of violence, hate and poverty in the rural South. It will move you. It’s very good. Maybe don’t read it if you’re already feeling a little delicate.

June: “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly–in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.”–Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. A light but touching and remarkably well-written novel about an elderly Italian man who goes searching for the story of the American woman he fell in love with fifty years before. A perfect summer read, proving that happy endings don’t have to be stupid or far-fetched.

July: “I’m not sure that I can claim to have taken my place in the human alphabet, even as its honorary twenty-seventh letter.”–Pilcrow, by Adam Mars-Jones. Given that this novel is narrated by a little boy who is essentially bed-bound by a wasting disease, bits of it aren’t exactly fast-paced. And yet it’s sweet, solemn and captivating.

August: “You are the man with the slow resting heartbeat, the calmest person in any room, the best man in a crisis.”–Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies: RSC Adaptation, by Hilary Mantel and Mike Poulton. Sorry but do I even need to discuss this? It’s the play adaptation, with commentary on the characters, of two of the best novels written this decade. It’s amazing.

September: “In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest invention, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.”–The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. I only ever seem to read this book when I’m going through some sort of personal crisis. Maybe because, being about the comic book superheroes of the 1940s and 1950s, it provides some truly epic escapism.

October: “The two young men–they were of the English public official class–sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage.”–Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford. All the rest of the novel is in that precarious word “perfect”. Because when things are perfect, there’s nothing else to do to them except destroy them. This is a hell of a book, and very long, but the most authentic portrait of English society in the years leading up to, during and after WWI that I know of.

November: “It was the closest kingdom to the queen’s, as the crow flies, but not even the crows flew it.”–The Sleeper and the Spindle, by Neil Gaiman. Pretty sure I’ve already discussed this here, but my God is this a wonderful, beautiful book. Like all the best fairy tales, it is not really for children.

December: “The Elite Cafe was entered by a staircase from the foyer of a cinema.”–Lanarkby Alasdair Gray. I’m still working on this; it’s not easy either, and it’s very long, and the section I’m in at the moment is like a weird hybrid of James Joyce’s Ulysses and those whacked-out cartoons that Monty Python did between sketches, but it’s becoming progressively more interesting. It’s also supposedly the greatest Scottish novel of the last century, so there’s that.

Looking at them, I wouldn’t say these are a perfect representation of my reading in 2014–it ignores the swathe of eighteenth-century novels and criticism I covered, the nineteenth-century social history and literature, and most of the best contemporary novels I read, as well as the poetry and the ridiculous number of war books I ended up with in the latter half of the year. But it does provide a slice, and suggests that my reading is pretty much evenly balanced along gender lines, although I need to do better with writers of color. I’ll be posting again soon about the end of the 30-day reading challenge and my personal top books of 2014 (who doesn’t love a good end-of-year list?)