20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), BIPOC 2021, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, Mieko Kawakami, Picador

‘Heaven’ by Mieko Kawakami

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 167 pages; 2021. Translated from the Japanese by Sam Brett and David Boyd. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven is a novella about the impact of bullying on a teenage boy and how his friendship with a girl suffering similar schoolyard abuse gives him the courage to keep on going.

It’s set in the early 1990s, before the advent of the internet, social media and smartphones (which would arguably make things worse or, at least, different), and presents a world that is both violent and nihilistic.

A secret alliance

Narrated by “Eyes”, a 14-year-old boy, who is ruthlessly bullied at school because he has a lazy eye, it charts his last tormented year at middle school before graduating to high school. His only friend is Kojima, a female classmate, who is dubbed “Hazmat” by the same bullies because she supposedly smells and has dirty hair.

Their friendship is a secret one because to admit their solidarity would only encourage the students who persecute them so shamelessly already. The pair communicate via notes and letters and meet in the stairwell when no one is looking. They even go on a train trip together, a journey that solidifies their alliance and helps them get to know each other outside of the classroom.

There’s not much of a plot. The storyline simply highlights how Eyes is treated by his fellow students and shows how he tries to rise above his situation by not fighting back, accepting their terrible treatment of him in silence and nursing his pain alone.

When he does build up the courage to confront one of his attackers, following a distressing scene in a school gymnasium (be warned, there are some violent scenes in this book – they’re not gratuitous, but they are confronting), he’s essentially gaslit into thinking he’s got it all wrong.

“You said we do it for no reason, right? I agree with that, but so what? What’s wrong with that? I mean, if you want us to leave you alone, you’re totally free to want that. But I’m totally free to ignore what you want. That’s where things don’t add up. You’re mad that the world doesn’t treat you like you want to be treated, right? Like, right now is a good example. You can walk up to me and say you want to talk, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen. Know what I mean?”
I replayed in my head what Momose had just said and looked at his hands.
“More than that, though,” he said. “I got to tell you. This whole thing about you looking the way you look. You make it sound like that’s why we act the way we do, but that’s got nothing to do with it.”

Eventually, even his friendship with Kojima begins to flounder when he realises that she’s not there to support him to escape the bullies but to merely comfort herself by the idea she’s not suffering alone.

Bullying behaviour

This Japanese novella, expertly translated by Sam Brett and David Boyd, is a good examination of bullying behaviour — why people do it, how they get away with it and the long-term serious repercussions on those who suffer it.

There’s an alarming absence of adult intervention, whether by parent or teacher, which is probably indicative of a problem that can go undetected for a long time if the perpetrators are careful and the victim is too scared to speak up.

Heaven is profound and disturbing, but it’s also melancholy, intimate and tender, and there’s something about the hypnotic prose style that gets under the skin and leaves a lasting impression.

And thankfully, despite all the violence and the terror, the story ends on a bittersweet, hopeful note…

This is my 8h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I accepted this one for review because regular readers of this blog will know I am quite partial to Japanese fiction. I’d been quite keen to read Kawakami’s previous novel, ‘Breasts and Eggs’, now. This is also my 7th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Kate Jennings, literary fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21

‘Moral Hazard’ by Kate Jennings

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 192 pages; 2002.

What a beautiful little gem of a book this one turned out to be!

Kate Jennings’ Moral Hazard is set in Wall Street during the 1990s and tells the story of an outsider — Cath, an Australian “bedrock feminist, unreconstructed left-winger” — who works at an investment bank by day and looks after her ill husband by night.

Previously a freelance writer, she’s sold her soul to make big bucks as a speechwriter for the mid-level bank known as Niedecker Benecke. She needs the money to look after her husband Bailey, 25 years her senior, who is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.

She knows nothing about finance but she can craft a sentence, although she finds the sexist world — and the politics — of the investment bankers and the communications department a challenge. Her only “friend” in the firm is Mike, a fellow cigarette smoker, with whom she spends her breaks, sitting outside in the plaza sharing confidences.

The book was reissued by Text Classics in 2015

Stark but beautiful prose

The story, which spans roughly six years, from Bailey’s diagnosis to his death, is told in forthright prose undercut with dark humour.

It reads like an insider’s guide to investment banking — its risk-taking, its greed, its unwritten rules, protocols and unfettered belief in the market — based on the author’s own experience working for Merrill Lynch. But it’s also an honest look at the challenges facing those who must look after loved ones* with chronic illnesses while juggling their own lives and careers.

It’s not hard to see the parallels between both worlds.

I was commuting between two forms of dementia, two circles of hell. Neither point nor meaning to Alzheimer’s, nor to corporate life, unless you counted the creation of shareholder value.

The morality of greed

In fact, Bailey’s slide towards the loss of self could also mirror Cath’s own changes in values, her need to “play the game” to get ahead, to understand the tickings of the financial world and the increasingly risky behaviour of those around her.

While Moral Hazard is set more than a decade before the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the cracks are already there and the shadow of the Barings Bank collapse, caused by employee Nick Leeson’s unauthorised trading, looms large, so when Mike tells Cath about a hedge fund that is likely to collapse, she has a moral dilemma: follow protocol and keep quiet, or speak out and tell her superiors?

She is similarly conflicted when Bailey insists she euthanise him should he become too ill even though they both know this is against the law.

Interestingly, in economics, moral hazard occurs when a business increases its exposure to risk because it does not bear the full costs of that risk. The concept could also apply to Cath’s care of her husband whose behaviour becomes wildly unpredictable and unmanageable as the story progresses, so much so that she has to put him into full-time care and hand over responsibility to others.

There are other metaphors in this short, sharply observed novel — the way the financial authorities bail out failing hedge funds, for example, and make no changes to the rules could be seen as if they, too, have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Portrait of office life

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Moral Hazard is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year. As well as its twin themes of illness and finance, I loved its portrait of office life, a subject that is rarely addressed in fiction despite the fact so many of us spend our working lives sitting at desks surrounded by others sitting at desks.

And it’s a lovely counterpoint to Jennings’ debut novel, Snake, which was set in the Australian outback as far removed from New York’s financial district as it is possible to get!

For another take on Moral Hazard, please see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.

*  Jennings’ husband, the graphic designer Bob Cato, died of complications from Alzheimer’s in 1999, so those aspects of the novel must surely be based on experience, too.

This is my 10th book for #AWW2021 and my 11th for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it secondhand last year. 

Author, Book review, Elizabeth MacNeal, Fiction, historical fiction, London, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth MacNeal

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019.

Art, freedom and obsession collide in Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory. This debut novel marries historical fiction with elements of the psychological thriller to create a proper page-turner. I practically devoured this book on a seven-hour train journey (from Kalgoorlie to Perth) last weekend and have been thinking about it ever since.

It’s set in London during the Great Exhibition and the era of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a loose association of English painters who rebelled against the art standards of the day (read more about them here), and focuses on a young woman called Iris Whittle who is drawn into their circle, first as an artist’s model, but then as a burgeoning painter in her own right.

Along the way, she attracts the unwanted attention of a taxidermist, Silas Reed, who is constantly in pursuit of the weird and wonderful. Silas becomes obsessed with Iris and her deformity — a collarbone that is twisted out of shape so that she has a slight stoop to her left side — and makes plans to befriend her, whether she likes it or not.

What results is a fast-paced story in which Iris, oblivious to Silas’s increasingly dangerous obsession with her, falls prey to his dark, manipulative ways…

Painterly ambition

When we first meet independently minded Iris she is working (and living) in a doll factory (hence the book’s title) alongside her twin sister Rose, painting faces onto dozens of porcelain dolls every day.

The long 12-hour shifts are monotonous and dull. Iris dreams of doing something more interesting with her life. She has a talent for painting and longs to pursue this, but, of course, conventions of the day generally restrict women from leading lives that are anything other than domestic.

A chance encounter with a member of the PRB, attracted to her flame-red hair and quiet beauty, offers her a means of escape. In exchange for becoming an artist’s model, she will be given art lessons to explore her talent.

But what seems like a no-brainer is fraught with pitfalls, for to do so she will earn the wrath of society (to be an artist’s model at the time was akin to being a whore) and her family will disown her.

There are further complications because Iris has no idea that a man she accidentally bumped into at Hyde Park a few weeks earlier has developed a “thing” for her. Silas Reed’s quiet pursuit of her goes relatively unnoticed. She ignores his later invite to visit his shop (“Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New”) and is unaware that the Great Exhibition ticket that arrives in the post is an anonymous gift from him.

Being oblivious to these “signs” only puts Iris in more danger for she is unable to take steps to protect herself — with far-reaching consequences.

Historical fiction

There are echoes of John Fowles’ The Collector here (a book I read so long ago that my memory of it is quite vague), but for all its creepiness and, at times, morbid atmosphere, this isn’t a psychological thriller as such.

The Doll Factory is primarily a well researched historical novel, incredibly evocative and rich in detail, which brings the sights and smells of 1850s London to life on the page.

It’s a novel about art and pursuing dreams and having the freedom to live life as you want to live it, something that wasn’t typically open to women in the 19th century. It also explores what it was like to be a woman at the time, to constantly be in the male gaze, to modify your behaviour to keep men happy, to do things that would not call your morality into question.

It’s one of those well-crafted, entertaining novels ideal for those times when you are simply looking for something quick and absorbing to read, but because it is also underpinned by important issues and rooted in historical fact, it’s got enough meat on the bones to make it chewy, too.

Author, Book review, Don DeLillo, dystopian, Fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Silence’ by Don DeLillo

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 128 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Much fuss has been made of the fact that Don DeLillo wrote The Silence shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The insinuation is that his novella is somehow prescient, that he peered into the abyss and predicted a global crisis.

In the media release that came with my review copy, DeLillo says: “I began writing the novel in 2018, long before the current pandemic. I started with a vision of empty streets in Manhattan. The idea of the silence grew from sentence to sentence, from one chapter to the next.”

But this novella, which is about what happens one fateful day when everything digital ceases to work and the world comes grinding to a halt, bears little resemblance to a public health emergency. Instead, this is a dystopian glimpse of a world where all our forms of communication — the internet, phones and TV — simply stop working.

While this is an interesting idea, it’s not properly fleshed out. DeLillo is only just warming up, he’s barely hit his stride, and suddenly the book ends. The story is flimsy, almost as if the author has sketched out a rough idea but not bothered to fill in the details. It feels like a creative writing exercise — “tell us what would happen if you were in a plane and the digital systems failed” — and doesn’t pack much of a punch.

The opening — a married couple flying business class between Paris and New York in 2022— holds much promise. They’re homeward bound and have a date with another married couple to watch the Super Bowl on TV when they get back. But things go awry in the air. The seatbelt warning light comes on. The turbulence becomes unbearable. The plane, it seems, is about to crash.

The story then cuts to Manhattan, where another married couple, accompanied by a friend, are settling down to watch the football match on TV. The opening kick-off is one commercial away, but then the screen goes blank. Drink is consumed to kill the time. Bizarre conversations take place. It’s all a little odd.

Eventually, their friends who were on the plane turn up at their door. No one seems to grasp the seriousness of, well, anything. This couple, who are pretty much unscathed, may as well have blamed a traffic jam for their late arrival.

The whole story is preposterous. Yes, DeLillo might be one of the greatest American novelists of our time, but The Silence is a disappointment. One word springs to mind and that is tosh.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, satire, Setting, UK

‘Diary of a Somebody’ by Brian Bilston

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019. 

If you like wordplay, puns and funny poetry, put Brian Bilston’s Diary of a Somebody on your wishlist. I laughed all the way through it; the perfect antidote to the strange and anxious times we are living through.

The story follows (the fictional) Brian Bilston’s resolution to write a poem every day for an entire year, a way of distracting himself from the pain of a broken marriage, an unsatisfactory relationship with his teenage son and an office job at which he’s failing.

His poems are dotted throughout the narrative, and each one is laugh-out-loud funny.

Duvet,
you are so groovet,
I’d like to stay under you
all of Tuesdet.

And:

Poetry Club
The first rule of Poetry Club
is that we meet each month in the pub.
The second rule of Poetry Club
is that not all poems have to rhyme.

But it’s the constant wordplay that gave me the best giggles. This is a good example of what to expect:

How to Avoid Mixing Your Metaphors It’s not rocket surgery. First, get all your ducks on the same page. After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking stride. Be sure to watch what you write with a fine-tuned comb. Check and re-check until the cows turn blue. It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake. Don’t worry about opening up a whole hill of beans: you can always burn that bridge when you come to it, if you follow where I’m coming from. Concentrate! Keep your door closed and your enemies closer. Finally, don’t take the moral high horse: if the metaphor fits, walk a mile in it.

Along with witty one-liners:

She put the phone down on me and I was left alone with the silence. It was a mute point.

Dear Diary

Written in diary format, it charts 45-year-old Brian’s attempt to make sense of his falling-apart world. He’s slightly self-absorbed, lacks self-awareness and is obsessed with custard creams.

There are times when there is simply no substitute for a custard cream. These times are typically from 7am to 10pm, at the following intervals: 00, 15, 30, 45. There is something about their vanilla-custard filling and the baroque carving of the outer sandwich layers which lends itself to the practice of contemplation and study.

His working life is full of management jargon and missed deadlines. And his home life isn’t much better. He doesn’t seem able to commit to anything. He can’t even finish a book despite starting a new one every month for his book club:

 In other news, I began to read Wuthering Heights this evening. I’m on page 12 already. It’s rather moorish.

He attends a regular poetry club but each meeting is somewhat disastrous as he tries to compete with the dastardly Toby Salt, who is a much better poet, attracts the ladies (including someone Brian has his eye on) and has a loyal and ever-increasing Twitter following.

I noted that on Twitter, I have now optimised myself for twenty-three people. Toby Salt has somehow managed 174 followers. I clearly need to deepen my digital footprint and I have made a vow, with the cat as my witness, to share more of my poems with my foolhardy followers as a next tentative digital baby step.

But when Toby mysteriously disappears not long after his first book is published, Brian unwittingly attracts the attention of the police: did he bump off his rival in a pique of jealous rage? The fun of this book is reading it to find out!

Original and inventive

There’s no doubting that Diary of a Somebody is wholly original and inventive. It’s a wonderful blend of satire and black comedy.

The jokes and the constant refrains — helping his neighbour remember when it is bin day, putting up with self-help mumbo-jumbo from his ex-wife’s new man, never finishing a novel, eating too many custard creams and so on — do begin to wear thin after a while.

Perhaps 12 months in the life of Brian Bilston is a bit too much and six months could have been chopped from his diary, but on the whole, this is an enjoyable novel about a man who doesn’t quite realise how funny (if somewhat pathetic) he really is! More, please.

This is my 9th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I picked up a proof copy of this in early 2019 when I went to a Picador Showcase in London and the author did a reading, which had me in minor hysterics. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my copy with me when I moved back to Australia but when I saw it on Kindle for 99p earlier this year I couldn’t resist buying it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, France, James Salter, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘A Sport and a Pastime’ by James Salter

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 192 pages; 2007.

James Salter is one of those authors I had only ever heard good things about, so when I found A Sport and a Pastime in my local second-hand store (I live a few doors down from Elizabeth’s Bookshop in Fremantle), I couldn’t resist buying it.

First published in 1967, it tells the story of a love affair between an American college dropout and a French shop girl, who go on a road trip across France in the late 1960s. Their liaison, steamy and sordid, is imagined by an unnamed narrator, another American, who spies them from afar and lets his creative juices get the better of him.

It’s a rather strange and beguiling novel, and not quite what I expected. It feels voyeuristic in places, misogynistic in others. Mainly it feels like a writer being a little self-indulgent as he lets his own sexual fantasies dominate the storyline.

But the writing, clear and lucid and full of heartache and a deep sense of longing,  is reminiscent of so many American writers of the era. I’m thinking Richard Yates, William Maxwell and William Styron. It’s a style I admire a lot.

Throughout this short novel, Salter is very good at capturing moods and heightened emotions, of the conversations, pithy and of little consequence, between people, but he really excels at conveying the beauty and history of the landscapes and villages of rural France. A Sport and a Pastime could very well double as a tourism advertisement for the French Tourism Board. Take this as an example:

The blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky, The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep, cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint, rotten odor within, orange peels lying in the corners. The uneven curbstones, their edges worn away. A town of doctors, all with large houses. Cousson, Proby, Gilot. Even the streets are named for them. Passageways through the Roman wall. The Porte de Breuil, its iron railings sunk into the stone like climbers’ spikes. The women come up the steep grade out of breath, their lungs creaking. A town still rich with bicycles. In the mornings they flow softly past. In the streets there’s the smell of bread.

Personally, I admit that I didn’t care much for the storyline, but the luminous prose made up for it. There were many turns of phrase that took my breath away — the line above about the streets smelling of bread is but one example; “over France, a great summer rain, battering the trees, making the foliage ring like tin” is but another — and I felt I was in the hands of an accomplished writer, one who had honed his craft and understood the power of words to enchant and hold the reader captive.

Perhaps A Sport and a Pastime, with its over-emphasis on eroticism and its blurring of the lines between the body and the soul, was not the place to start with Salter. It probably didn’t help that the entire book felt too similar to William Maxwell’s The Château, also written in the 1960s, which I read earlier in the year and found a bit tiresome.

That said, it has certainly made me intrigued enough to read more of his work. If you can recommend any titles, please do leave a comment in the box below.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Behrouz Boochani, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Papua New Guinea, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 374 pages; 2018. Translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian

To be honest, I don’t know where to begin with “reviewing” this book. I read it more than a month ago now, and every time I sit down to try to commit my thoughts to this blog the words won’t come.

It’s an astonishing and lyrical account of a cruel and inhumane life at the hands of a cruel and inhumane government. It makes for very powerful reading, but it also serves to make the reader feel powerless. I have not been able to shake the uncomfortable fug that enveloped me as I read this.

For those of you who don’t know, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is a true-life account of what it is like to be caught up in Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention system. It was written by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, poet, scholar and filmmaker, who has been detained on Manus Island since 2013.

Boochani’s tale, tapped out on a mobile phone, text message by text message, and smuggled out via WhatsApp, was translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian, and it is bookended by a foreword by Australian author Richard Flanagan, a lengthy translator’s introduction explaining how the book came into being and a similarly lengthy essay by the translator at the very end.

It first came to prominence earlier this year when it won the Victorian Prize for Literature — the single most valuable literary award in the country — and the Prize for Non-Fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2019. But since then it has also won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Australian Book Industry’s non-fiction book of the year and Australia’s National Biography Award.

Ironically, Boochani has not been able to accept any of those awards in person. Although the Manus Island detention centre closed in 2017, he has remained on the island since then — effectively stateless.

An collaborative memoir

The memoir — which Tofighian describes as “literary experimentation” and a “collaborative effort between author, translator, consultants and confidants” — reads very much like an adventure tale to begin with, before morphing into an almost Kafa-esque depiction of prison life.

It charts how Boochani decided to flee Iran when the offices of Werya, the Kurdish magazine he co-founded and produced, was raided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which arrested 11 of his colleagues. Fortunately, he was not in the office that day. In fact, he never went back. Instead, he went into hiding and eventually made his way to Indonesia, with a view to making a perilous ocean crossing to seek asylum in Australia.

But things did not go as planned. The Indonesian boat he was on, overcrowded with some 60 asylum seekers, was intercepted by the Australian Navy.  Everyone on board was taken to Christmas Island.

Early in the morning, at six, guards came in like debt collectors and heaved us out of bed. Within a few minutes they took us to a tightly confined cage. It is now almost two hours since they brought us here. These hours have been really tough. It is hard being imprisoned…being locked in a cage. We have now been in prison on Christmas Island for a whole month. It is hard being a prisoner.

From there, Boochani was moved to the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, a detention centre in Papua New Guinea operated by the Australian Government. He was stripped of his name and, like every other prisoner, became known as a number only.

I can’t believe what is happening to me /
All that hardship /
All that wandering from place to place /
All that starvation I had to endure /
All of it… /
So that I could arrive on Australian soil /
I cannot believe I am now being exiled to Manus /
A tiny island out in the middle of the ocean

The rest of the book is a mix of eloquent, heart-felt poetry (as per the quote above), bitter diatribes about his predicament and observational stories about fellow prisoners and guards told with amazing psychological insight. It’s an almost soporific account of day-to-day life on Manus and what happens — or doesn’t happen — on those endlessly long, supernaturally hot days in detention.

It brims with a slow-burning anger but it is also filled with perplexity and confusion, for how could a country, so highly regarded, so wealthy and free, treat innocent people in such a cruel, dehumanising way?

Boochani’s story is littered with suicides (much sought-after razor blades being the instrument of choice) and horrendous examples of already traumatised men, many fleeing persecution and certain death at the hands of authorities in their respective homelands, now enduring further mental anguish.

His account is a valuable insight into what happens to men, cut off from family and vital support networks, when they are subjected to inhumane treatment. He depicts the infighting, the emotional outbursts, the acts of moral cowardice, the riots, the hunger strikes, the way that certain people cling to their traditions and cultures when everything around them is foreign and frightening.

And he writes about his own inner turmoil, his desire to be alone, to not build allegiances with anyone, to quietly observe — and secretly document — all that he sees around him.

Compelling and confronting

There’s no doubting that No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is an extraordinary achievement. The contents are compelling and confronting, as is the story behind its creation.

Reading it is to become almost immune to the shock of all that Boochani endures. I suspect his writing, not only of this book but the many articles he has penned for the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Financial Times et al while being imprisoned, has given him the creative outlet he needs to preserve his sanity — and his hope. He is a very cerebral person and a deep thinker.

It’s the kind of book that induces anger and shame in the reader. But it’s the sheer injustice of this system and the total lack of empathy and compassion towards our fellow humans that leaves me feeling most perplexed. I cannot comprehend it. Nor can I comprehend the waste — of time, of energy, of productive human lives — to maintain a policy that is so hostile and destructive.

Sadly, the people who need to read No Friend but the Mountains most — those that think asylum seekers should go back to where they come from, the policymakers, government officials and contractors that prop up this system — won’t read it. But if you’re an Australian, I almost think it’s your duty to do so, if only to know what is being done in your name.

For another take on this book, please see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend.

This half-hour documentary (above) is a moving account of how Boochani wrote the book and smuggled it out.

This is my 13th book for #20BooksOfSummer. I bought it on Kindle after it won the Victorian Prize for Literature, but the copy I actually read was borrowed from Fremantle Library. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, England, Fiction, France, John Lanchester, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR40

‘The Debt to Pleasure’ by John Lanchester

Fiction – paperback; Picador Classics; 232 pages; 2015.

John Lanchester’s debut novel, The Debt to Pleasure, is a subversive black comedy about a narcissistic food snob who has a well-disguised penchant for murder.

The tale is narrated by Tarquin Winot stream-of-consciousness style in a voice that is both pompous and eccentric. He begins by stating “this is not a conventional cookbook” and then explains it was written while on a short holiday travelling “southwards through France, which is, as the reader will learn, my spiritual (and for a portion of the year, actual) homeland”. (For the rest of the year he lives in Norfolk.)

This lends the narrative a “serendipitous, ambulatory and yet progressive structure” as his wanderings are accompanied by his highbrow thoughts on food philosophy, provenance and gastronomy — or, as he describes it later, “gastro-historico-pyscho-autobiographico-antropico-philosophic lubrications”.

These, in turn, are intertwined with his own personal history, the second — and more popular (as we are constantly told) — son of wealthy parents (a successful businessman and a former stage actress), educated at home via a succession of private tutors (because his nature was judged “too fine grained and sensitive” to weather boarding school) and effectively raised by a kindly Irish nanny, called Mary T, whom he adored but then inexplicably seemed to frame for a personal theft.

Menus for all seasons

Structured around a series of seasonal menus — for winter, spring, summer and autumn — replete with recipes, it’s easy to feel that Tarquin’s thoughts on everything from what makes a good blini to the secret of a great croque monsieur (a “dab of mustard” apparently) are essentially harmless (and occasionally soporific), without quite realising he’s making a series of rather sinister confessions involving  family members and various servants.

His seemingly innocuous ramblings are dotted with laugh-out-loud funny lines and humorous asides, such as this sentence from a recipe for fish stew:

[…] then add six pints of what in England would be chlorinated former effluent (also known as ‘water’) and boil furiously.

And this introduction to his chapter titled “An Aïoli”:

‘It is not really an exaggeration to say that peace and happiness begin, geographically, where garlic is used in cooking.’ Thus X. Marcel Boulestin, a hero of Anglo-French culinary interaction, inexplicably omitted from ‘Larousse Gastronomique’. And which of us has not felt the truth of Boulestin’s words as we arrive in that land whose very name seems to betoken and evoke a widening of life’s sensuous possibilities, the addition of an extra few notes at either end of one’s emotional keyboard, a set of new stops on the church organ of the psyche, an expansion of every cell of one’s sensory paraphernalia, a new rapprochement between body, mind and spirit, that land which is also an idea, a medium, a mêtier, a programme, an education, a philosophy, a cuisine, a word: Provence. (On rereading that sentence I discover that, grammatically, it requires a question mark which I am, however, reluctant to supply.)

Along with his constant “mansplaining” and penchant for overly verbose sentences and often ludicrous word choices (see quote above), Tarquin’s narrative is riddled with petty jealousies mostly revolving around his older brother, a successful sculptor, whom he managed to cheat out of an inheritance. And we soon learn that the real reason for Tarquin’s holiday is not to soak up some French provincial sun, but to track down his brother’s biographer so that he can, well, let’s just say ensure that she doesn’t uncover, in the course of her research, anything that she shouldn’t…

Admittedly, I found Tarquin’s voice a little overbearing and far too conceited and arch for my liking (I could only read it in small doses), but that’s the point of the book: you’re not supposed to like this character and you’re certainly not supposed to like his deeds.

But this was a fun read — and to use a deliberately chosen pun — a rather delicious one at that!

The Debt to Pleasure won John Lanchester the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1996 and it was reissued as part of the Picador Classic imprint in 2015.

If you liked this, you might also like:

The Cook by Wayne Macauley: A deliciously dark and subversive tale about a 17-year-old young offender who becomes a trainee chef under the tutelage of a Gordon Ramsay-like figure, before branching out into his own (deadly) business as a personal chef for a rich woman and her family.

This is my 7th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 26th for #TBR40. I purchased it in 2015 when it was re-issued as part of the Picador Classic imprint. I attended an event at Foyles celebrating the launch of that imprint where Lanchester discussed this book, alongside John Banville whose novel The Book of Evidence was also re-issued as part of the series. Banville also wrote the introduction to Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Lanchester kindly signed his copy for me.

Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, essays, Lily Brett, New York, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘New York’ by Lily Brett

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 156 pages; 2001.

I appear to be going through a bit of a phase reading essay collections (and memoirs) of late, so when I saw Lily Brett’s New York in a second-hand store I couldn’t resist buying it.

Brett was born in Germany but grew up in Australia where her parents, both Auschwitz survivors, had fled as refugees after the war. She moved to New York in 1989 and is married to the British-born Australian artist David Rankin. She began her career as a rock journalist (she fictionalised this experience in her semi-autobiographical novel Lola Bensky, which I read last year and really loved) but is now better known as a fiction writer, essayist and poet.

This collection, published in 2001, comprises 52 short articles, no longer than three pages apiece, which are largely about what it is like to live in New York, though she does tackle other subjects as varied as dress sizes, matchmaking, motherhood and her frustration at being unable to buy non-fat yoghurt in Germany.

They are all largely honest accounts of her own insecurities, anxieties and dislikes, a bit like a collection of confessionals. Her fixation with food and her weight, her distrust of relentlessly cheerful people — “they frighten me” — and her hatred of day spas — “Spas make me tense. I’m suspicious of what they are selling” — come in for a drubbing here. But regardless of what she’s writing about, all of them feature her trademark dry, biting wit, much of it self-deprecating. Here’s but one example:

Motherhood is a thankless job. Children never remember what you did for them. What they never forget is what you failed to do.

My elder daughter has said that I never drove her to parties. All the other mothers drove their daughters, she said. My strongest memories of those years are of driving children. To parties, to ballet classes and drama lessons. Driving them to tae kwon do and piano teachers. Driving them to their friends’ houses. Driving them to school and back. I was always in the car. Driving myself crazy. (‘Children’, p69)

In another example, she confesses that while she loves New York — the shopping, the food, the curious things she sees on a daily basis — she does, occasionally, like to escape it. Yet, no sooner is she out in the countryside than she wants to go back to the city because she has next to no tolerance for greenery — “I don’t like trees that much” — and hates flying insects because every “gnat, wasp, mosquito, fly or flea that can bites me”:

Last summer, on Shelter Island, a small island two hours east of New York, I wore an insect repellent bracelet. The bracelet was supposed to ward off all insects in the vicinity for thirty hours. I was bitten after two minutes. I put on more bracelets. One around each wrist, two on each ankle and one in my hair. The bracelets looked like hospital identification tags. I looked like an escapee from a lunatic asylum. I wore the tags all summer. (‘The Country’, p12)

Yet, for all her urbanity, she struggles with modern life and is suspicious of new technology. (This collection was written pre-social media, and the internet was still in its infancy, so some pieces appear slightly dated.) Case in point:  ‘A Cellular Phone’ is uproariously funny, particularly when she mistakes birdsong for her phone buzzing and then wonders why no one is on the other end of the line. (I also laughed out loud in another piece, ‘Father’, in which she phones her elderly father in Australia and works herself into a terrible lather because he does not sound like himself and she fears he’s ill or losing his marbles, only to discover at the end of the conversation that it’s not her dad she’s talking to — she phoned the wrong number!)

I really enjoyed this collection. Brett’s prose style is clean and effortless, making for an easy read. And while the setting is mainly New York, the topics she covers are essentially universal — though her attitudes are, occasionally, a little outdated and references (there are several) to Monica Lewinsky suggest it was written at the time of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.

That said, these breezy pieces are fun and frivolous, the kinds of articles you might expect to find in a newspaper column or weekend colour supplement. I’m now keen to explore more of her work.

This is my 11th book for #AWW2019.

Author, Book review, essays, Ireland, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, Sinéad Gleeson

‘Constellations: Reflections from Life’ by Sinéad Gleeson

Constellations book cover

Non-fiction – hardcover; Picador; 304 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Irish essay collections reviewed on this blog are like London buses — none for ages, then two come along at once. Yesterday I wrote about Ian Maleleny’s Minor Monuments; today I want to tell you about Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations: Reflections from Life.

Before I begin, I also want to tell you a bit about how I first came to know Sinéad. Back in 2007, when my blog had been going for about three years, I decided to challenge myself to read 12 classic works of Irish literature based on this poster, which anyone who’s ever visited Dublin will have seen in all the tourist shops.

Sinéad, who had a very successful arts blog I had been following for a while, left a comment, politely pointing out that that poster annoyed her because there were no women writers on it. This was something I hadn’t even noticed  — at the time I never considered the gender of the authors I read — and it was a bit of an eye-opener.

As it turns out I never did complete my challenge, and Sinéad and I became firm online friends, both on this blog, her (now defunct) blog and on Twitter (and, much later, Instagram).

Since then she’s become a broadcaster, reviewer and editor — no surprise that the first book she edited, The Long Gaze Back, was an anthology of stories by Irish women writers, followed up by The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland.

In March this year we got to meet face to face for the first time when her debut essay collection was featured as part of a Picador Showcase event. She was as delightful and as enthusiastic and as friendly and as warm as I had come to expect from our online exchanges.

Life-affirming essays

Constellations: Reflections from Life gathers together 14 extraordinary, life-affirming essays, some of which have been published elsewhere (for example, Blue Hills and Chalk Bones, about Sinéad’s childhood illness and visit to Lourdes, was published in the online edition of Granta magazine in 2016, and an edited extract of Our Mutual Friend, about the death of an ex-boyfriend, was published in The Guardian a couple of months ago) with which I was familiar.

I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skin, a constellation of old and new metal. A map, a tracing of connections and a guide to looking at things from different angles.

It might be stretching it a bit to say the essays are inter-linked, but they definitely share common themes — the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity — and all are highly personal accounts of issues and events Sinéad herself has experienced, including adolescent arthritis, leukaemia, hip replacement, motherhood, love, grief — and the disdain of male doctors.

The body – its presence, its weight – is both an unignorable entity and routinely taken for granted. I started paying particular attention to mine in the months after turning thirteen.

Her prose throughout is eloquent, lyrical and, occasionally, visceral. It is moving, often poignant, but free from self-pity. She knows how to craft a story — most essays in this collection have a powerful punch, the sort that makes you feel bereft or emotionally wrung out or simply reeling by the time you get to the end.

Unputdownable book

I actually read Constellations in one sitting, unable to put it down (though, to be fair, it was a rather wonderful distraction from painting my hallway, a DIY task I regretted as soon as I started). By the final page I was a bit of a wreck, the cumulative effect of reading about so many potent experiences, of what it is to live with illness and the battles to be endured when you are a woman struggling to be heard.

It is fair to say I loved every essay in this book, but my two favourites are right at the end. Second Mother, about Sinéad’s godmother, is a devastating account about the impact of dementia on a person and their loved ones; A Non-Letter to My Daughter, is an eloquent poem, fierce in nature but wise and brilliant, too, about being a woman in this world, the kind of message I wish I’d been given as a teenager about to embark on an independent life.

I write this to you daughter,
Place these words in your hands,
To help you understand
The way the world will be
Because you are a girl

In essence, I’m not sure this review can ever do justice to such a fine, wide-ranging collection of essays. All I can do is urge you to read it. But I’m not the only one saying this. Booker Prize-winner and Irish writer extraordinaire Anne Enright, who describes Sinéad as an “absolute force”, says “If you want to know where passion and tenacity are born, read this book.”

If next year’s Wellcome Prize wasn’t paused I’m sure it’d be a shoo-in!