Good reads to give and receive

Books as presents 2

Last December I posted what I’d enjoyed reading in 2018 and kind people have asked for an update. I have three categories for books nowadays – those still to be read, those destined for the charity shop, and those I liked so much they earn a place on my shelves. It’s been a pleasure for this post to look along the rows and find them for you. Most are not recent – if you want to read about flavour of the month books there are always the newspapers and all the wonderful #bookbloggers. But these are what stuck in this reader’s mind.

43611453._sy475_Storming in at number one for the second year running is Shirley Jackson. I’ve been rationing her so I don’t run out of gems. This year’s favourite is Life Among the Savages. These columns about motherhood, although her children must now be older than I am, still ring true. Here’s part of her second paragraph “I look around sometimes at the paraphernalia of our living – sandwich bags, typewriters, little wheels off things – and marvel at the complexities of civilization with which we surround ourselves (….) I begin throwing things away, and it turns out although we can live agreeably without the little wheels of things, new little wheels turn up almost immediately. This is, I suspect, progress. They can make new little wheels, if not faster than they can fall off things, at least faster than I can throw them away.”

Christmas books 2019 1
…little wheels that have fallen off things

As I was reading this, imagine my uncanny delight when I discovered in the pocket of the old cardigan I was wearing – an unidentifiable little wheel off something! Anyone who’s ever attempted to amuse sick children, schlepped them round a department store or directed household tasks from the labour suite will identify straight away with Jackson. “So unlike the home life of our own dear Queen,” as my mother would say, raising her head from her book for a moment to consider the pile of undarned socks. (At least women don’t darn husbands’ socks anymore.)

Julie Otsuka published The Buddha in the Attic in 2011. It’s the story – completely new to me – of the Japanese “picture brides”, young (and not so young) women chosen and brought to the US by Japanese men between the wars. No groom looked quite as their photo had shown them. This is a story of hardship, disillusionment, making do, humour, 10464963cultural displacement, hostility and integration, as poetic as The Grapes of Wrath from a female Japanese point of view. It’s difficult to quote from, for it’s written as though in several voices, themed by arrival, accommodation, agricultural and domestic labour, childbirth, children, the war and so on. My husband is not the man in the photograph. My husband is the man in the photograph but aged by many years. My husband’s handsome best friend is the man in the photograph. My husband is a drunkard. My husband is the manager of the Yamamoto Club and his entire torso is covered with tattoos. My husband is shorter than he claimed to be in his letters, but then again, so am I…We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113 degree heat. We gave birth beside wood stoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. 

13330466Also from America, also from 2011, comes Winter Journal by Paul Auster. In the beautifully considered phrases you’d expect from him, he chronicles his life via the buildings and countries he’s lived in, the relationships with parents and women, the illnesses or accidents his body has undergone as well as the joys and sensations, the food he’s eaten, the cars he’s driven, his love for his daughter, the people he’s sat shiva for…. He’s sixty-four at the outset of this journal, and it’s intended as a sort of audit, far less self obsessed and more universal than I’m making it sound. A quote would be another massive paragraph, but whoever you are, if you read it for yourself you’ll find echoes.

36670917One of my favourite British authors is Jon McGregor, and his 2006 So Many Ways to Begin rivals the two above in the quality of the prose and the universality of his description of a long, more or less successful marriage over several decades. There have been problems – mental illness, redundancy, family schisms. There have been successes – homes created, a much loved daughter, love held and exchanged. Life could have been different; it may have been better; the narrator husband is on the whole thankful it wasn’t worse. Why have I left this book in the country? I’d like to be able to quote you every line. (For anyone who couldn’t quite concentrate on the wonderful but dense Reservoir 13, this is a more straightforward narrative, with more plot. But the strength as always is McGregor’s enticing poetic language.)

40130093A running theme here is poetic prose. It’s combined with a riveting turn-the-page plot in Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. (And at last a book from 2019!) In late 19th century Oxfordshire, a small child is pulled from the river Thames and brought to an inn on its banks. She was dressed in the simplest of shifts that left her arms and ankles bare and the fabric, still damp, lay in ripples around her. The child seems to have drowned. Yet she is not dead. She is healthy, but she doesn’t speak. Who was, or is the child? Who will claim her, who will heal her, and how will the story affect the characters around her, the innkeeper and his family, the farmers and watermen, the pioneer photographer, the self taught nurse and the delinquent son? The only thing I didn’t like in this book, although it accurately reflects attitudes at the time (and today) was the depiction of the river gypsies: it was hard not to read it as racist and it wasn’t justified by the plot. That aside, it’s a great homage to the tradition and language of the best fairy tales (which of course don’t usually give gypsies a good press.) One to save for next time you have a mild cold and need something to nurse it with on the sofa.

37573276My last recommendation is non-fiction, although it is about teasing out the stories we tell ourselves and reframing them for a better ending. In Therapy is transcriptions of conversations, originally on radio, between psychotherapist Susie Orbach and her clients. As she says: Each individual who comes for help craves acceptance, though they may be diffident or even tetchy…I find the particulars of learning how an individual’s internal world works fascinating. This is not so different from creating characters as a writer, only Orbach’s are real. The threads are as compelling as any plot, as some people work towards understanding themselves better and she tries to help others avoid getting even more bogged down than they were when she first met them. It’s not the end of the road, she is able to advise one man, it’s the beginning of something new and possible. Highly readable, whether you agree with her methods or not.

I don’t deserve to live in this company, but in my novels I do try to make my prose as poetic as theirs and sometimes I succeed. If you’re still stuck for Christmas presents, try The Magic Carpet! I can hardly review it myself, but there’s a lovely one here.

Magic carpet wrapped for Xmas

©Jessica Norrie 2019

 

 

Patience rewarded in “Reservoir 13”

I do like a book that shatters the rule bound splodge of too much current creative writing advice. I especially like it when it’s by a Professor of Creative Writing (at Nottingham University, where the course doesn’t sound splodgy at all).

The professor is Jon McGregor, whose If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002) I admired in my post on beautiful writing. You must devote time and space to his books, so I waited until nearly a year after publication to read Reservoir 1333283659

The Goodreads reviewer who wrote: “Lovely descriptions of nature are insufficient compensation for an uneventful plot and a slew of forgettable characters” missed the point. There’s a whole village worth of plots, the stories of many families and their members. A creative writing mantra broken: multiple characters, no clear main protagonist. But what’s to stop the reader following and embroidering those that interest her most? Or you could tease out each plot strand horizontally.

Jessica in peak district 1984
Hills above Sheffield, 1982

I may have been especially drawn in because I once lived on the edge of the Peak District, so nostalgia was an added factor. In descriptive prose like painted brushstrokes, at least sixty familiar seeming  individuals move to the foreground, retreat, are glimpsed in the distance, pass by as we’re engaged with someone else, disappear… Nature is a character too, or several: the badgers who thrive as the book progresses, the vulnerable foxes, the endangered butterflies. Man-made structures take on personality: the locked butcher shop still with chopping boards and knives used by generations of the same family; the footbridge that may collapse or hold in times of flood; the school boiler room where distasteful things occur (or do they?), and even the boiler itself. It’s all enmeshed. (Les Thompson) nodded when people spoke to him, and his handshakes were heavy and warm. The snowdrops were up and the crows flew overhead and the wind moved through the trees. Jane had to keep herself from smiling.

The hook goes behind the clouds, so the reader must find their own motivation. After two chapters, I asked my partner: Does it continue like this right through? Yes, he said, it does, and once I knew that, it was comfortable to ride with it rather than await something different. The book starts with a disturbing incident. A teenage girl has disappeared in the countryside around the Peak District village and reservoirs where her parents have a holiday let. Cue the blurb of every other book on Waterstone’s front table. I yawned. Abducted child, missing girl, sinister holiday… If I’d submitted this – in my dreams! – the editors would have said, “I already have something similar on my list”.

Peak District 1982 by Steve
Cooper explained there had once been villages down there, that all the reservoirs had been made by flooding the valleys. They looked at him, waiting to see if he was joking. The world didn’t always sound right when it was first explained.” Ladybower reservoir, near Sheffield, 1983

The villagers turn out to search and we hear snippets of their interweaving stories, garnished with the local flora and fauna and changing with the seasons. In the conifers above Reservoir no 5, a buzzard sat warmly on her eggs while the wind pulled through the trees. The narrator goes inside the villagers’ heads and informs us of their back stories, up to a point. Then we’re free to fill in from our own imaginations, should we wish to. The occasional dialogue is embedded, unsignalled by speech marks, within long paragraphs echoing previous paragraphs. POVs swing back and forth. Goodness knows how many rules that breaks. The Show-not-tellers must have hit the tequila by now.

Martin, she said. This has to stop now. I’m not here to be won back. He was shaking his head. I’m telling you, he said, I didn’t send that. There was a softening in his expression. He felt as if he had the upper hand for once. She looked at him and she didn’t know what to believe.

The tequila drinkers had better buy another bottle because so many passages like those above contain words from the list often banned to creative writers. There were/there was/he felt/it seemed/they looked/she understood/he said/they went… Too much distance between the reader and characters, swig, glug. But to me, stretched on my sofa in the muffled quiet of last week’s snow, the banned words provided space to consider setting and characters. Such writing gives time to digest. There was something of the prison yard about him. Paradoxically, understatement goes a long way; space and silence provide proportion. There was weather, and branches from the allotment sycamores flew onto the roof of the Tucker house. I nearly overstated my case by putting the simplest opening clause ever in bold print. Peak disrict

The ragged robin was still in flower, but this isn’t some idyllic dreamtime: farmers can’t sustain a livelihood; arson, theft and alcohol are problems. There’s domestic violence and mental illness among the wheatsheaves and elderflower cordial. The place had been empty now for seven years. There was a dispute to be settled before it could be sold, but no-one seemed to know what it was or who might be involved. Jones went up a ladder and took the branches down.

I was lost in details of lambing and growing courgettes and barely aware of the Show-and-tellers slumped by the empty tequila crate. Already assaulted by banned words, they’d now been subjected to a deluge of passive voice. At the school the lights were seen on early…. The decision was made to pack up…At the heronry the nests were rebuilt.

So there are no cliffhangers, no five or three act structure, no thwarted will or protagonist struggling desperately through an apparently unsurvivable crisis! Yet several stories are told. Each chapter covers a year. The first sentence mentions New Year fireworks; then there’s Shrove Tuesday and the May well dressing (now I understand this local craft, thank you, Professor McGregor). The chapter ends with carol singing and life goes on: births, marriages, divorces, deaths. The narrative weaves through time at the same tempo. Time, calendar events, weather are the stationary, longitudinal warp threads; the characters are the weft, drawn through and inserted over-and-under them, to be kept even or the fabric wouldn’t hold together. I rooted for some, disliked the randy farmer, hoped the wild twins would calm down and longed to lift the spliffs from teenage lips. (You can forget deep POV: the narrator tells us exactly what their parents don’t know they’re doing in that car, in a sympathetic depiction of teenage friendships, uncertainties and mistakes).5172rqnad5l-_sx347_bo1204203200_And what of the missing girl, and the thirteenth reservoir? You’d have to read the book to find out, but you may become more interested in those left behind. For more books set in villages, see the Guardian article by Xan Brooks here.

Anyway, hurray for the rule breaker. This is a wonderful book. When he finished, I hope McGregor broke the mould: the last thing we need is a slew of formulaic imitations.

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

In praise of beautiful writing

Such an obvious thing and so easy to overlook: stories and books are composed of words so it’s the words that matter most. In these days of unreliable heroines, bodies eviscerated in infinitely revolting ways, and rush-to-the-finish plots, what a refreshing pleasure it is to be greeted by an author who won’t let you pass on by without stopping to admire her words. And having paused, you find yourself re-reading and reciting them to benefit fully from the careful cadences.

25064563This week I’ve been reading Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs. I haven’t finished it yet, I’m not even half way through. I’m on a walking tour through musical Irish prose and I’m in no hurry for it to end. The plot is important, she makes that quite clear, and so far it has included many different ideas as well as events, with first hints and then revelations of domestic betrayals and terrible, true war crimes. But I’ll consider the plot as a whole when I reach the end. For now I’m lingering in the language.

Note: I started writing this when I’d read about a hundred pages. I read some more this morning, and O’Brien has jolted me back into the plot with a twist more shocking than I’d anticipated. Interestingly, now I’m propelled by events, I’m not finding the language so engaging. Nonetheless for those hundred pages I was enraptured by words as mesmerising as waves breaking onto the shore. Since they’re what I set out to look at, they’re what I’ll continue with for now.

Some of her language is poetic; these lines occur within just four pages:

“Clouds chased each other across the heavens that bright afternoon, when she drove into the hotel car park. It was much further south and the air was balmy. Yes, clouds on a great maraud, up there staging a tournament.”

“…she heard the lilts and hollers of children.”

“From the slant of the hall light she saw the spray of rain on his hair…”

Some is indirect speech, rhythms and phrases caught in the present tense like pinned butterflies:

“Sister Bonaventure is lost for words and also worried about the palpitations. She can hardly believe it. A surprise party and she thinking she was going to the chapel to say the rosary.”

Some is fierce: “As for the bodies, that was a matter for the engineers, hence the zillions of secret graves that litter our land.”

“He is all alone (…) with the frozen lostness of the abandoned.”

Such care taken: active  “clouds on a great maraud” where most would settle for “marauding clouds”; an “also” added to Sister Bonaventure’s worries, mirroring her speech and also echoing the sounds of the word “lost” that preceded it; “zillions” – I thought, is zillions a real number? Is it childhood slang for a massive uncountable amount beyond thinking and reason? Juxtapose “zillions” with engineering projects to create “secret graves” and you see how naivete and carelessness, attractive attributes in childhood, can lead adults to genocide. I’m still only a couple of pages further on, and the pickings are rich. Yes, words on a great maraud, staging a festival between the covers.

15790829
See “Country Girl” for O’Brien’s own account of her writing and her life.

I don’t have the patience to take such care crafting my own prose. I didn’t start writing, like Edna O’Brien, in my late teens and I haven’t nearly reached my late eighties, and even if I’d had her time, it’s unlikely I’d have developed her skill. I do try to write well. I try to construct clear sentences, of varying length for interest, with one appropriate word instead of a blitz of six. I try to make them lead on from the one before, without unnecessary length or repetition or cliché. Unlike O’Brien, I haven’t spent a lifetime listening, adapting, honing and polishing, consorting with Marianne Faithful and Marlon Brando and undergoing therapy with R D Laing, interviewing terrorists and piling up literary prizes in the bulging trophy cupboard. Nonetheless, I – we all – can learn from her.

In this matter of cadence, what makes a beautiful sentence? For O’Brien, her Irish heritage provides a sound (in all senses of the word) foundation. “Lilting Irish” is a cliché, but clichés only come into being because they are true. So much Irish prose, poetry  and song does lilt – but lilting implies lulling and Irish writers inevitably go on to pack in a shock. Think of Yeats’ first lines: “Although I’d lie lapped up in linen”; “I think it better that in times like these”; “On the grey sand beside the shallow stream” – then look up what comes after. Think of Beckett, Molly Keane, Toibin, Boyne, Anne Enright…no, I’ll think of them for another post, on Irish writing, another time.

The Irish are front runners but often the language of a title signposts a book from elsewhere whose language will stop you in your tracks: “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” (Italo Calvino), (as beguiling in translation as in Italian); “After Leaving Mr MacKenzie” (Jean Rhys)“If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” (Jon McGregor); “By Grand Central Station I Sat  Down and Wept” (Elizabeth Smart). (Note how many of these titles start with what is now inflexibly labelled a “connective” in school English teaching.) Or the effect could be gained from something as small as a comma: “Cry, the Beloved Country” (Alan Paton). These elegiac titles precede lyrical prose, while economical, clean, precise writing may be heralded by a single powerful word: Persuasion (Jane Austen); Futility (William Gerhardie); Atonement (Ian McKewan).

 

Exposure (Helen Dunmore), which I reviewed here, also has a one-word title announcing gleaming prose. Dunmore is of course a poet as well as a novelist, her words as thoughtfully arranged, selected and refused as in her verse – test any page by reading a paragraph aloud. Another of my favourite writers, Julian Barnes, has written extensively of his debt to Gustave Flaubert. 10746542Nobody took more care with prose than Flaubert, who would spend weeks on a single sentence and coined the term “le mot juste” which ecompasses infinitely more meaning than the translation, “the right word”. In my review of The Noise of Time, I discuss how Barnes uses language to make the reader stop, and think.  Incidentally (but perhaps it’s not incidental) good prose can be more successfully re imagined in other media: the recent film of Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is concise, clear, meaningful, allowing the reader/viewer space for reflection, as are the successful film versions of McEwan’s novels.

This was a small reflection on words. I could go on, but I’d like to hear examples that you have found beautiful, and we can take a moment to share them. Perhaps as well as the words themselves, space, and silence – the spaces between words, the sounds between the notes – are what make these works so special. I think I’ll look at that next time.

©Jessica Norrie 2017