Author, Beautiful Books, Book review, Darin Strauss, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Half A Life’ by Darin Strauss


Non-fiction – hardcover; Beautiful Books; 208 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

As teenagers we all do things that are embarrassing, irresponsible and occasionally reckless. But spare a thought for American writer Darin Strauss, whose life was changed abruptly when he was just 18 and a month away from high-school graduation.

His book, Half A Life, recounts what it has been like to spend more than 20 years atoning for a tragic incident, summed up succinctly in the opening line of the memoir:

Half my life ago, I killed a girl.

It was May 1988, and Strauss was driving his father’s car. A cyclist, on the road ahead of him, swerved across two lanes of traffic and collided with his vehicle, which was travelling at forty miles an hour.

Celine Zilke, the girl on the bike, was sixteen and will always be sixteen. And I knew her: Celine went to my school. She was an eleventh-grader. I see her playing field hockey in blue gym shorts — Celine had been that lively, athletic type one always imagines in shorts. Or I see her settled in beside friends on the concrete benches just outside the cafeteria, or dashing off notes in the public-speaking class we took together.

The book examines Strauss’s life — from the accident to Celine’s funeral and the resultant civil law case brought against him by Celine’s parents — in painstaking detail. It is unflinching in its honesty, often uncomfortably so.

And while he claims that his “moral and aesthetic codes argued against my writing an accident memoir”, that is essentially what Half A Life is about. It is Strauss’s way of dealing with the past, examining his guilt and taking responsibility for his actions.

While Strauss was found innocent of any wrong-doing right from the beginning, that doesn’t stop his fellow students from shunning him at school. And it doesn’t stop him from acting out the emotions and behaviour that he feels is expected of him. Sadly, his remorse plagues him right through his twenties and into his thirties. It is only when he gets married and becomes a parent that he is able to put things in perspective.

The book is told in quite a straightforward, occasionally punchy prose style and can be easily read in one or two sittings. It never feels like he is “creating an entertainment out of misfortune” (as he puts it), but I did find the woe-is-me attitude, while completely understandable, slightly tiresome.

Ultimately, this is a very sad book about what it is to be human, coming to terms with past actions, however tragic and painful they might be.

Half A Life won the 2010 National Book Circle Critics Award for Autobiography.

Author, Beautiful Books, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, India, Kishwar Desai, Publisher, Setting

‘Witness the Night’ by Kishwar Desai


Fiction – Kindle edition; Beautiful Books; 352 pages; 2010.

Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night recently won the 2010 Costa First Novel Award. I was intrigued by the novel’s exploration of the hidden world of female infanticide in India, so downloaded it to my Kindle shortly after the announcement was made.

The story opens with the diary entry of a 14-year-old girl that feels like a candid, if somewhat confused, confession to a crime in which she was involved. The details of the crime are hazy, but it appears that the girl might have staged her own rape in order to make it look like “someone had tried to hurt me”.

The narrative then shifts to the social worker, Simran Singh, who has been assigned the case. It turns out that the girl, Durga, is now in a remand home, charged with the murder of 13 members of her family in one night. All of the victims had been poisoned, some had been stabbed and others burnt.

Despite the lack of fingerprints and no evidence to suggest an outsider was involved, Singh is convinced there is more to the story than meets the eye. She wonders if a man was involved or whether Durga acted in self-defence. She feels that the only reason the case has attracted a blaze of publicity is because of the large inheritance involved.

What follows is Singh’s painstaking investigation in which she immerses herself in the convoluted Indian legal and judicial system in an attempt to unearth the truth. What she finds out along the way is often eye-opening. But it’s not until she is forced to confront an entire culture intent on eliminating unwanted females, often before they are born, that Singh begins to understand Durga’s dilemma.

Singh’s narrative is bookmarked at the beginning and end of each chapter with two others: Durga’s diary entries, which provide an insight into her thought processes and painful family history, and  Durga’s London-based sister-in-law, Binny, who corresponds with Singh via email, offering further clues to Durga’s complicated background.

While the story is easy to read and Singh is an intriguing, well-drawn and unconventional character — 45 years old, single and still trying to escape her mother’s emotional blackmail regarding the need to settle down and produce children — the structure of the book doesn’t quite work.

Binny’s emails might give the story a contemporary feel and offer some clues to Durga’s plight, but they come across as forced and interrupt the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative. By comparison, Durga’s diary entries lack authenticity on the basis they just seem too well written for a traumatised teenager to have compiled. (They also offer way too many obvious clues as to what happened on the night of the murders.)

In her “Author’s Note” Desai claims that while the characters in her book are fictional, the events are true. I suspect she is referring to infanticide as “events” or perhaps it’s the actual crime? She doesn’t specify. She adds: “There is a complicity of corruption between the police, the judicial system, politicians, media and the uncivil society […] gender issues are still treated with contempt.”

If that is truly the case, then hopefully Desai’s novel may bring this problem to the attention of a wider audience. But despite the worthy aims of Witness the Night, I’m not sure that the story comes up with quite the same impact as, say, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (about the Rwandan genocide), which I read shortly before it.

That said, Witness the Night is a refreshing take on the psychological crime novel. If you can forgive the author’s tendency to editorialise (Desai tends to cram her normally effortless prose with chunky passages of facts and news-like observations), then this new series featuring Simran Singh is one that promises to be worth following.

Author, Beautiful Books, Book review, Fiction, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Simon Van Booy, USA

‘Love Begins In Winter’ by Simon Van Booy


Fiction – paperback; Beautiful Books; 352 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Anyone who claims that they don’t enjoy short stories, hasn’t read this collection by Simon Van Booy. Love Begins in Winter, which won the Frank O’Connor Award for Short Fiction last year, comprises five stories about love, loss and longing in prose that is both elegant and engaging.

“From the opening line he grabs the reader’s attention and maintains focus,” said one of the judges of the  Frank O’Connor Award. “His language is lyrical and sings off the page. His stories are full of the most exquisite insights, aphoristic without ever seeming like mere conveyances for ideas.”

I couldn’t put it better myself. Indeed, I also concur with Publishers Weekly, which claims “each of these stories has moments of sheer loveliness”.

As well as the real international flavour of the settings — Canada, USA, Wales, Ireland and Sweden — and the diverse range of lives presented — musicians, doctors, diplomats, gondoliers — there’s an almost magical quality to Van Booy’s writing. And his use of language is divine, painting gorgeous pictures in just a sentence or two.

Here’s an example from the title story, about a French cello player who falls in love with a Welsh woman still traumatised by the death of her brother in childhood:

Watching my father lift the caravan onto the hitch of our family sedan
was like watching Atlas take up the world on his back. Then, on the
motorway, my brother and I nesting in the back as my mother’s hand
appeared behind the seat with a smile of orange for each of us, my
father quietly navigating our fortress to a field on a hillside at a
distance from our Welsh village unfathomable to us.

And this, from The Coming and Going of Strangers about a Romany Irish boy who falls in love with a Canadian orphan:

The landscape stretched before Walter like in a painting — lines of dark green hedgerows, a cluster of bare trees, an ancient gate hung during harvest, dots of hill sheep and then the fabric of the sea.

There’s an aching quality to his writing too (on more than one occasion I was reminded of Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music), a kind of gentle longing and a tenderness that makes the stories emotional without being saccharine. Van Booy was widowed in his early 30s (the book is dedicated to his late wife, Lorilee — “If you are not here, then why are you everywhere?”) and is now raising his young daughter alone, which might explain his penchant for characters on the brink who find renewed reasons for living when they least expect it. Above all it is a hopeful, optimistic book, full of wisdom, humanity and nostalgia.

These are the kinds of stories that wrap themselves around you in their intensity, and yet there’s something strangely calming about reading them. I found them the perfect antidote to the stresses of my working day — and the perfect length (roughly 30 to 40 pages) to devour in a lunch hour.

Author, Beautiful Books, Book review, England, Ian Carpenter, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘Guardian Work’ by Ian Carpenter


Humour – paperback; Beautiful Books; 222 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s always nice to try something a little left-of-field when you’re between novels and not sure what to read next, a “palette cleanser” if you will.

Guardian Work by Ian Carpenter popped through the post yesterday courtesy of the publisher and while it’s not something I would normally rush out and buy, I was intrigued by the premise — an Essex-based property manager decides to apply for every job listed in one issue of the Guardian newspaper to see what might arise. Earlier today I thought I’d read a chapter or two before getting on with other bits and pieces, and before I knew it a couple of hours had flown by and I’d finished the entire book! Yes, it’s a quick and easy read, but it’s also a very funny one.

Apparently Ian’s “project”  was recounted via his blog over the six-month period that it took him to apply for all the jobs listed in the September 29, 2007 issue of the Guardian. Along the way he visited a Swiss banker who wanted to employ his parent’s cat; got mired in an endless cycle of “telephone tennis” with a firm looking to recruit an operations manager; was invited to take part in a money laundering scheme fronted by a chap supposedly running an art gallery; and had a run in with a firm operating a covert operation which warned him not to pass on any information to anyone outside the enforcement community. (His reply, to the latter, was hilarious: “I withdraw my application for your job. It all sounds a bit cloak and dagger to me.”)

He also applied for various high-profile positions that were not advertised in the newspaper, such as the manager of the English football team and head of the Liberal Democrats.

To be perfectly frank, the book doesn’t break any new ground, because we’ve seen this “trick” done before. In fact, I think it’s probably Robin Cooper’s fault, because it was his The Time Waster Letters, published in 2004, which ushered in a whole new genre of books based on the kooky correspondence between bored men and officialdom.

But Guardian Work is still a rather enjoyable romp that had me tittering in quite a few places, especially as I have been on the receiving end of some questionable job applications in the past. I’m now beginning to wonder if the would-be reporter whose cover letter informed me she had the “ability to wake up beautiful every morning” wasn’t winding me up for the purposes of writing a book like this one!