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. 

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘From Where I Fell’ by Susan Johnson

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 352 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I do love a good epistolary novel, and this new one by Australian writer Susan Johnson is a good one!

From Where I Fell is composed of a year-long exchange of emails between two women on opposite sides of the planet whose correspondence is sometimes fraught but always frank.

It begins when Sydney-based Pamela Robinson emails her ex-husband in Paris, only to discover she’s got the right name but used the wrong email address: her heartfelt missive has landed in the inbox of New York-based teacher Chrisanthi Woods by accident. What follows is a strange and wonderful correspondence in which two women, at different stages of their lives, develop an online friendship free of the burden of up-close-and-personal contact.

The two are polar opposites in temperament and outlook. Newly divorced Pamela is self-obsessed and nursing old wounds, struggling to raise three boys alone in strained financial circumstances having repatriated to Australia after living in France for many years, while Chris, married but child-free, is opinionated and independent, a woman who does everything to help others but rarely gets the credit. One is well travelled and supposedly worldly-wise, the other has lived in the same city her whole life.

An unlikely friendship

Over the course of their correspondence, the women share confidences and problems, offer moral support and encouragement to each other, but occasionally one offends the other and long silences ensue.

Are you there?
From:
Pamela Robinson
To:
Chris Woods
Hi Chris,

Just wondering if you’ve forgiven me. I miss your emails.

With love,
Pamela

Through their emails, we come to understand the circumstances of each character’s day-to-day existence, their struggles and triumphs, their ups and downs and everything in between. We see how they evolve over time, how they adjust to change and move on with their lives.

And we also begin to recognise their personality quirks — Pamela’s constant need to talk about herself, to moan and complain, and Chris’s tendency to cut her down to size or take umbrage at what’s been said  — albeit framed through a single, one-dimensional lens, for we can only see these characters through their ability (or inability) to express themselves in written language. We do not really know how the people in their lives see them.

Re: A dream
From:
Chris Woods
To: Pamela Robinson

Don’t you get sick of talking about yourself all the time?

The story works because we are following the narratives of their lives, which are filled with dramas, and we want to know how things will pan out.

Pamela, for instance, is losing control of her three sons (her eldest is physically abusive) while her ex-husband refuses to speak to her. Chris, on the other hand, is losing control of her aged mother, who wants to repatriate to Greece, and is constantly fighting with her sister who is her mother’s favourite.

These domestic grapples are set against a larger backdrop that puts everyone’s problems into perspective: Chris is giving English lessons to two Syrian teenage refugees who fled the bombing in Raqqa with their mother and do not know what happened to their father.

An unlikely friendship

From Where I Fell is an easy read, the kind that slips down like silky smooth hot chocolate on a cold winter’s afternoon.

It’s full of delicious little moments, snide comments, funny barbs and forthright confessions. It’s about the passage of life — marriage, divorce, motherhood, making a home and building a career (not necessarily in that order) — and all the pain, regret, sorrow and joy that make us human. It’s witty, warm and heartbreaking.

I very much enjoyed being in the company of these wonderfully resilient women.

This is my 2nd book for #AWW2021.  

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘The Friend’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – Kindle edition; Virago; 224 pages; 2019.

This is the third book by Sigrid Nunez that I have read this year. She was a new discovery for me back in January, when I fell in love with her wonderful novel The Last of her Kind, but I’m fairly certain that if I had read The Friend first I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading anything else by her.

Not that this is a bad book. I enjoyed it. But its rambling nature, its lack of plot and structure, tested my patience at a time when I had little patience to test.

I know it pre-dated What Are You Going Through, but it felt very much like a companion piece to that novel — and maybe that’s why it didn’t really work for me: I simply read them too close together.

A canine inheritance

The Friend is about an unnamed middle-aged woman who inherits a dog after her best friend, a male creative writing professor, dies and leaves his great Dane to her. The inheritance, like his death (a suicide), is unexpected. Despite their close friendship for more than 30 years, the idea that the woman would look after his dog if he died has never been discussed: she finds out the (not particularly welcome) news when his third wife invites her for a coffee.

The dog, Apollo, is beautiful, docile and loyal, but he’s huge and he takes up so much room in her Manhattan apartment he has to sleep on her bed. And yet, for all the inconvenience and stress of living together in such a confined space, the pair of them get along well. He teaches her patience. She begins to fall in love with him.

But his presence in the building is forbidden by her landlord who has banned pets. There is a very real possibility that she will lose her much loved rent-controlled apartment if she does not find another home for Apollo.

That sense of jeopardy is what holds the entire narrative together — will she keep the dog and be turfed out into the street, or will she find a way to get rid of him?

Recurring themes

This, however, is a thin premise for a plot; most of the novel reads like a series of essays (the book is comprised of 12 parts) that focus on recurring themes. These include, among others, suicide and its aftermath; platonic friendship, sexual relationships and marriage; grief and bereavement; academic life; creative writing, writing as a profession and literature; dogs as companions and dogs in literature.

These forays or diversions read like long passages of stream-of-consciousness or eloquent diary entries — and there’s a hint of meta-fiction throughout (is the narrator, for instance, really Nunez in disguise). They’re brim-full of insights and there’s an emphasis on detail, and despite some heavy subject matter — this is, after all, a book about suicide and its aftermath — there’s a seam of humour running throughout the narrative, a slight poking of fun at the ridiculous concept of a small woman looking after a gigantic dog.

I should also point out that it’s all written in the second person; the “you” is the dead friend, but by the last chapter the “you” has become the dog. Make of that what you will.

The Friend is an intriguing concept for a book. But for all its humanity and its intelligence and its look at an “outsider” — an unmarried woman finding true companionship with a dog  — I found the story didn’t really hold my interest. Perhaps that’s because it’s the kind of book you really need to be in the mood for.

Don’t let my review put you off though. Annabel liked it more than me — and so did Eric.

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.

2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Jessie Tu, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2020.

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing is Jessie Tu’s debut novel. It’s an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out. It’s about trying to find your feet as an adult, breaking free of the shackles of your (infamous) past and starting again. But it’s also about love, sex, self-esteem, self-worth — and self-destruction.

Rebuilding a career

Written in forthright first-person prose, Tu rarely pulls her punches. She lays bare one young woman’s pain and confusion as she tries to rebuild a massively successful career that went bung when she had a breakdown on stage. Here, she presents Jena Lin as a dedicated and hardworking musician trying to reinvent herself in a small, incestuous classical music world in which she’s long been pegged as a child star whose flame has burnt out.

She has twin struggles to juggle. Professionally, she endures a chaotic schedule of rehearsals, concerts, auditions and relentless practice, while personally, she has to “manage” an overly strict mother, who finds it hard to let her little girl go.

One of Jena’s coping mechanisms is to use sex with almost-strangers to make her feel alive or to give her a sense of being grown up. When she meets Mark, a much older man, she becomes consumed by him, to the point that it begins to affect her friendships and her working life, including a potential opportunity to go to New York to join one of the world’s leading orchestras.

Brave and audacious tale

It’s a brave and audacious tale, told in a refreshingly frank voice. I wasn’t sure it would be a story for me. I seem to have read a LOT of novels about millennial young women lately and I didn’t think this would anything new to the mix. But I was wrong.

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing turned out to be a gripping, occasionally shocking read (there’s a lot of sex in it, you have been warned), but its real strength lies in its perspective of an Asian-Australian trying to succeed in a closeted world dominated by the white and the privileged.

I really loved its originality, its fierceness and its unflinching attitude. I reckon this one might just appear on my Books of the Year list for 2020 I enjoyed it so much.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Exciting Times’ by Naoise Dolan: Another story of a millennial woman trying to reinvent herself, who hooks up with an older man before realising her heart desires other things.

‘Adèle’ by Leïla Slimani: A confronting and deeply thought-provoking tale about a married woman who has a penchant for rough sex with a succession of strange men she picks up in the unlikeliest of places.

This is my 5th book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 21st book for #AWW2020.

Author, Basque Country, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gabriela Ybarra, Harvill Secker, New York, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘The Dinner Guest’ by Gabriela Ybarra

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 140 pages; 2018. Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer.

The story goes that in my family there is an extra dinner guest at every meal. He’s invisible, but always there. He has a plate, glass, knife and fork. Every so often he appears, casts his shadow over the table and erases one of those present. The first to vanish was my grandfather.

So begins Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest, an intriguing story about inter-generational trauma and forgetting, with a particular focus on the long-lasting impact of terrorism on children and families in the Basque Country.

Billed as fiction, it’s really a mix of non-fiction, memoir and reportage as Gabriela attempts to unravel the truth about her grandfather’s violent and untimely death in 1977, some six years before she was born.

But it’s also a deeply personal look at what it is like to care for a terminally ill parent after Gabriela’s mother is diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011 and moves to New York for treatment.

The book works by linking these two deaths — one very public and sudden, the other private and dragged out — as a creative writing exercise in which Gabriela explores art, politics, family and grief.

It feels seamless and hypnotic to read, a bit like a long-form essay, and includes snippets of newspaper articles and letters, along with a handful of black and white photographs.

Kidnapped by terrorists

The book’s starting point is the kidnapping of Javier Ybarra, a prominent politician in Biblao, on Spain’s northern coast, by masked gunmen — members of the Basque separatist group ETA — who broke into his house and bound and gagged his family, including Gabriela’s then 28-year-old father. The intruders took Javier away and warned his children not to call the police until midday. A massive ransom was issued.

Some 20 days later, when that ransom was not paid, the terrorists sent a map showing where the body could be found. It was wrapped in a plastic sheet and dumped in a wooded area. (You can read more about the case via this Wikipedia entry.)

Gabriela did not know that her grandfather had been murdered until children at school told her of the rumours surrounding his death. It was not something her family talked about. She was largely unaware that it was her father who played a key role as the family spokesman during the traumatic days when Javier’s whereabouts were unknown. Such trauma, such personal history remained unspoken.

Then, when Gabriela’s mother died in 2013, she decided she needed to learn about her family’s past, almost as a form of remembrance. It was also a way to connect with her father, who had become a stranger to her.

The private made public

The Dinner Guest is a strange but beguiling book. It makes public so many things which would normally remain private, but the story of Gabriela’s family has always been news, at least for people of the Basque Country.

Perhaps the act of fictionalising elements and putting family history down on paper helped Gabriela to make sense out of what, on the face of it, seems to make no sense at all.

The Dinner Guest was published to critical acclaim in Spain, where it won the Euskadi Literature Prize in 2016. It was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Lone Woman’ by Bernardo Atxaga: This story follows 24 hours in the life of a woman who boards an overnight bus to Bilbao carrying a suitcase full of books and a packet of cigarettes. A former terrorist, she has just been released from prison as part of an amnesty. 
Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Kamila Shamsie, literary fiction, London, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 288 pages; 2018.

Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is an astute, highly readable and compelling novel about the ways in which familial and patriotic loyalties can be tested when love and politics collide.

Set in modern-day Britain, it’s the first novel I’ve read that has fleshed out what makes young Muslim men become radicalised and join ISIS. It also asks important questions about nationality, citizenship and whether terrorists can ever be reformed after they have fought abroad to create a (failed) Caliphate.

Structured around three siblings

The story is framed around three siblings of Pakistani heritage — twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, and their older sister Isma, who raised them when they became orphaned. Their father, whom they have never known, was a jihadist, famously said to have died en-route to being imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay after 9/11.

Each sibling’s story is told in a separate section so that we come to understand their individual motivations, dreams and fears.

Two additional characters — Karamat Lone, the UK’s outspoken Home Secretary, who is also of Pakistani heritage and a Muslim, and his spoilt young adult son, Eamonn, who becomes sexually involved with Aneeka — also get their own sections.

Airport interrogation

When the book opens we are thrust into the world of an airport interrogation. Isma, finally free of her duty to raise her younger twin siblings, is heading to the US to commence a PhD programme in sociology. She already knows she’s on a watchlist, thanks to her father’s history, so she has been careful not to pack anything that may be interpreted the wrong way, so no Quoran and no family photographs, but the hostility and the sense of injustice is palpable throughout the questioning.

‘Do you consider yourself British?’ the man said.
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.

This sets the scene for the rest of the story, which shows, often in painstaking detail, how British-born Muslims are often regarded — by the media, by authorities, by politicians and by members of the public — as being terrorists or of having terrorist sympathies, and how they must negotiate this world of suspicion, either by lying low or playing along.

Shamsie is very good at highlighting how the public mood, often set by posturing politicians, gives rise to a climate of fear. Lone, the Home Secretary, is the son of immigrants but is, himself, anti-immigrant. On TV he speaks tough about British values and plots to extend his own powers so that he can revoke British citizenship so that it applies to British-born single passport holders only. It is his actions and his words that help fan the paranoia surrounding anyone of the Islamic faith living in Britain.

But the story really hinges on Parvais, the twin brother, who pursues the idea that his father was a hero he’d like to emulate. More by accident than design, he falls in with what we might term “the wrong crowd” and finds himself heading to Syria to join the media arm of ISIS. He tells his twin sister he’s going to Turkey for a holiday so that his “disappearance” doesn’t arouse suspicion. Of course, it’s no plot spoiler to reveal that everyone, including his two sisters, knows what he has done — after he has done it.

Based on a Greek myth

What is perhaps less obvious is the individual reactions to Parvais’ decision. Even Parvais’ own reaction, once the realisation of what he has done sinks in, demonstrates that being young and idealistic is no match for reality and taking responsibility for your actions.

Many reviews of Home Fire make much of the fact that the story is based on the ancient Greek myth of Antigone. If you know that myth, the ending probably won’t surprise you, but I’m woefully uneducated in this regard and found the conclusion quite shocking and profound.

This is a smart, thought-provoking and fearless novel. It was longlisted for the 2017 Booker Prize, shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award and won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, Josephine Wilson, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, University of Western Australia Press

‘Cusp’ by Josephine Wilson

Fiction – paperback; University of Western Australia Press; 247 pages; 2005.

Sometimes I pick up a book and it so perfectly matches my mood that I immediately fall in love with it. This is what happened with Josephine Wilson’s debut novel, Cusp, a serendipitous find in my local independent bookshop earlier this week. (Wilson’s second novel, Extinctions, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2017.)

Mending a fraught relationship

Set in 1990, Cusp tells the story of a mother and daughter trying to recalibrate a sometimes fraught relationship.

Lena Hawkins is 27 and has spent the best part of 18 months in New York, trying to reinvent herself as an art curator but is cleaning people’s homes instead and doing admin work because she doesn’t have a Green Card.

Her mother, Mavis, is half a world away — in Perth on the Western Australian coast — and she’s desperate for her daughter to return home. “Come soon,” she beseeches on the phone, before putting $900 on Lena’s Visa card to buy a flight. “Pack up properly, just in case a good job comes up. Or you meet a man. Or something,” she tells her daughter.

Back in Perth, in the height of an Australian summer, Lena finds herself hauled back to a past she’d rather forget, while Mavis struggles to make her daughter see what is right before her eyes.

Reissued edition, 2018

A layered narrative

The beautifully layered narrative, which is composed of vignettes and flashbacks, some set in New York and some in Perth, moves effortlessly between past and present and between two very different points of view — that of Lena’s and that of Mavis’s — from two vastly opposed generations.

What results is a complex picture of two lives inexorably linked but never quite working in unison. There’s a failure to understand one another. Mavis, who had Lena when she was 41 at a time when most women had their children in their 20s, can’t comprehend many of Lena’s life choices. Why did she drop out of university? Why did she have her heart set on such a flimsy career? Why did she go to New York instead of London like every other Australian wanderer? Why hasn’t she found a nice man yet?

While Lena doesn’t understand why her mother settled for such a boring domesticated life and why, now that her father has died (prematurely of a heart attack a few years earlier), she hasn’t used her new-found freedom to do something more exciting. Why, for instance, did she sell up the family home but move to a smaller unit in the same suburb? Why hasn’t she escaped the city she’s always complaining about? Why is she so intent on cleaning things up and throwing things away?

Portrait of a mother-daughter relationship

As well as a wonderful portrait of a mother-daughter relationship, with all its complexities, misunderstandings, tension and love, this book is also an insightful look at the impact of time and place on our lives and the ways in which our personalities and opinions can be shaped by experience, particularly travel.

There are some hard-hitting moments in Cusp, but it’s also full of vividly funny dialogue that often had me laughing out loud.

The characterisation is also superb: both Mavis and Lena feel truly authentic with their flaws and foibles, their little ways and viewpoints, and their inner monologues a curious mix of self-doubt and self-belief. I loved spending time with them.

Funny, poignant and wonderfully compelling, Cusp explores what it is to belong, to be loved and to find your rightful place in the world.

This is my 17th book for #AWW2019. I also read it as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this reading project, along with a list of Western Australian books already reviewed on the site, here. Unfortunately, if you are based outside of Australia you may have trouble buying this book. I recommend searching for used copies on BookFinder.com, or you can always buy direct from the publisher UWAP, which has a flat international shipping fee.

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.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Nicole Krauss, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, TBR40

‘The History of Love’ by Nicole Krauss

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 272 pages; 2005.

Sometimes you pull a book from your shelves not really knowing what to expect and before you know it you’ve read 100 pages and are so absorbed in the story you’ve forgotten all sense of time. This is what happened to me when I began Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love earlier this week.

It is one of those wonderful stories that celebrates survival, love and literature, and cleverly weaves in a literary mystery with a moving story about unrequited love and grief.

Told from two divergent view points — a young girl mourning the loss of her father and an elderly Jewish man mourning the loss of his lover and the son he never got to know — it’s a wise and tender book framed around an original and inventive structure.

A literary mystery

At the heart of The History of Love is a mystery around a book, also entitled The History of Love. The manuscript, written by Polish man Leo Gursky about the woman with whom he had fallen in love, was considered lost during the turmoil of the Second World War and horrors of the holocaust. But, unbeknownst to Leon, it was published in South America under another man’s name at a later date.

Now, more than 50 years later, a single and much-loved copy of the book is in New York, where it is being translated by a woman who named her first child after the lead character in its pages. Recently bereaved, the translator’s task is a pleasant distraction from thinking about the early death of her husband, but for her daughter, Alma, it offers a chance to play matchmaker — between her grieving mother and the mysterious benefactor, based in Venice, who is paying for the book to be translated chapter by chapter.

Intertwined with this narrative is the story of Leo, now an elderly man living a solitary existence in a New York apartment block. He spends his days trying not to be invisible — deliberately spilling coffee when he goes out, for instance, and taking a freelance job as a life model for an art class — all the while dreaming of his lost manuscript and wondering if he might have been able to make it as a writer if it hadn’t got lost in the first place.

It’s a rather convoluted, albeit very clever, plot that expertly draws these two narrative threads together, along with a third storyline that explains how the manuscript was plagiarised and published under a rival’s name.

Distinct voices

The book’s strength lies in its distinctive narrative voices. Both the teenage girl Alma and the elderly Jewish Leo, who tell their stories in alternate chapters, are wonderfully realised with recognisably different personalities and ways of thinking. The supportive cast of family and friends are equally well drawn. (Alma’s troubled younger brother Bird is a particular delight.)

Through Alma’s and Leo’s day-to-day struggles we learn so much about human persistence, curiosity and love. It’s heartbreaking in places, particularly when you realise the scale of Leo’s loss (and not just in terms of a manuscript he had poured his heart and soul into), but it’s also full of wise and tender moments, and lightened by self-deprecating humour that often had me chuckling throughout. And the ending, which draws everything so neatly and cleverly together, is a deeply satisfying one.

The History of Love is a wonderful read. It is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Book to Read Before You Die, where it is described as a “sad and achingly beautiful book”, to which I wholly concur.

This is my 7th book for #TBR40. I bought it second-hand more than 10 years ago and it has lingered on my shelves ever since, surviving dozens of book culls along the way, probably because I knew I would read it due to its listing in Peter Boxall’s ‘1001 Books to Read Before You Die’. You can see all my reviews of books listed in Boxall’s book on my 1001 Books page.