TagSunday Salon

Sunday Salon: Ten Love Stories

I’ve been reading Marry Me, Dan Rhodes’s new collection of flash fiction on the theme of marriage. This being Rhodes, all is not exactly sweetness and light: in many of these stories, a male narrator is treated shabbily by his female partner – or occasionally he’s the one behaving shabbily himself – in absurd and darkly amusing ways.

‘Is there someone else?’ asks one man as his wife leaves him. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘there isn’t. But I would really, really like there to be’. Another woman informs her husband that he’ll have to leave, then produces a catalogue and sells him pots and pans for his new home (‘I would give you a discount because I know you, but it’s early days and I’m sure you’ll understand that I’ve got to keep a firm grip on my finances now I’m a single gal’). And so on, and so on, with these wonderfully barbed and pithy lines.

But, just occasionally. there are touches of real romance, as with the couple who put the lump of charcoal he gave her in lieu of a diamond under their mattress in the hope that pressure may transform it. The result: ‘it never looks any different. I think we would be a bit disappointed if it ever did.’ Moments like this bring light to the book, which ends up being quite sweet, in its own deliciously sour way.

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As it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, I decided to go back through my blog archives and see how many love stories I’ve reviewed over the years. My instinct was that it wouldn’t be that many, but (allowing for my subjective interpretation), I’ve come up with a list of nine more books to add to the one above, which is more than I expected. Here they are – but I’m not necessarily promising happy endings…

Viola di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (reviewed Jan 2013)

A girl struggling to move on from her father’s death may have found a way forward when she meets a local boy who teaches her Chinese – if she can let herself move forward, that is. I really enjoyed this book, but it might as much an anti-love story as a love story.

Evan Mandery, Q: a Love Story (reviewed Sept 2012)

This must be a love story, because it says so in the title, right? Well, maybe not, as its protagonist receives repeated visits from his future self, trying to persuade him to call off his relationships. But the ending is actually rather affecting.

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (reviewed May 2012)

A fine portrait of complex circumstances, as a young French-Algerian woman prepares to marry her Malian childhood friend in a bit to prevent his deportation. Not so much a tale of ‘will they?won’t they?’ as ‘should they? shouldn’t they?’.

Henry Green, Loving (reviewed Jan 2012)

A tale of love and contested space in a wartime country house. It begins and ends with the words of a fairytale, but that kind of happiness is a long way from being guaranteed.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (reviewed Aug 2011)

An excellent set of stories examining love in its various manifestations.

Alison MacLeod, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (reviewed July 2011)

Another fine set of stories about love.

Daniel Glattauer, Love Virtually (reviewed Feb 2011)

A novel told through two people’s emails; their correspondence becomes a form of courtship dance. Will they or won’t they? I don’t know without reading the sequel.

Priya Basil, The Obscure Logic of the Heart (reviewed June 2010)

A non-religious boy from a wealthy Kenyan Sikh family and a girl from a devout Birmingham Muslim family fall in love – and the complexities of their situation are very nicely delineated in the book.

Ronan O’Brien, Confessions of a Fallen Angel (reviewed Aug 2009)

The story of a young man who has apparently prophetic dreams of people’s deaths. I include it here for its wonderful portrait of falling in love twice, in two different ways – the dizzy rush of first love, and a slower flowering of affection later on in life.

Marking the half-year

It’s July already, but let’s not dwell on that too much. Instead, here’s a look back at some of my posts from earlier in 2012 that you may have missed:

Selected features

Selected reviews

Sunday Salon: Favourite books from A to Z

The Sunday Salon.com

I came across this meme on the Musings of a Bookshop Girl blog: for each letter of the alphabet, name your favourite book whose title starts with that letter. I’m not much of a one for naming definitive favourites, so instead I’ll list a favourite book for each letter (with links to where I’ve written about them. Here goes:

A  An A-Z of Possible Worlds – A.C. Tillyer

B  Beside the Sea – Véronique Olmi

C  Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

D  Diving Belles – Lucy Wood

E  Everyone’s Just So So Special – Robert Shearman

F  The Facts of Life – Graham Joyce

G  The Godless Boys – Naomi Wood

H  How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe – Charles Yu

I  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

J  Jasper Jones – Craig Silvey

K  The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness

L  Legend of a Suicide – David Vann

M  Mr Shivers – Robert Jackson Bennett

N  Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson

O  On Roads: a Hidden History – Joe Moran

P  The Prestige – Christopher Priest

Q  The Quiddity of Will Self – Sam Mills

R  The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton

S  Solo – Rana Dasgupta

T  Tender Morsels – Margo Lanagan

U  Under the Sun – Hanne Marie Svendsen

V  Vellum – Hal Duncan

W  We Had It So Good – Linda Grant

X  Xenogenesis – Octavia E. Butler

Y  Yellow Blue Tibia – Adam Roberts

Z  Zoo City – Lauren Beukes

I wasn’t sure whether I’d find something for each letter, but, luckily, The Quiddity of Will Self (which is the last book I read) turned out to be really good, and gave me the Q. (The X is a slight cheat, as it’s the omnibus of a series which I only read as individual volumes, but I think I can be allowed a little leeway.)

Let me know if you decide to do this meme yourself, as I’d love to see how our lists compare.

Sunday Salon: Thirty Years of Adrian Mole

Thirty years ago this month, Sue Townsend published The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾, which makes the series a little younger than me, though Mole himself is a good dozen years older. Perhaps the latter is why I never got around to reading The Secret Diary as a teenager myself; I was in my mid-twenties when I finally did – but I probably got more out of the book than I would have if I’d read it a few years earlier, and certainly enjoyed it enough to read the other books in the series (two further volumes have been published since) over the subsequent months.

Penguin have reissued all eight Adrian Mole books in new editions to mark the anniversary, and it has been interesting to revisit some of them. Certainly The Secret Diary remains a beautifully-crafted comic gem, and its 1984 sequel, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (which begins the day after the first novel ends), is much the same. Through the pages of his diary, we meet Adrian Mole: convinced he is an intellectual, obsessed over the spot on his chin, with a crush on the lovely Pandora Braithwaite; yet unaware of how bad his poetry is, and oblivious to the signs of his parents’ marital turmoil.

What I really appreciate on this re-reading is just how well-constructed Townsend’s humour is, both in terms of its one-liners (‘I am reading The Mill on the Floss, by a bloke called George Eliot’), and the broader structural jokes which help establish Adrian’s character: intelligent (albeit perhaps not as much as he thinks he is, or would like to be), but not self-aware, nor adept at picking up the emotional cues of others. Yet, although we are often laughing at Adrian’s misfortune, we still root for him – there is a sense that ultimately he means well, and deserves more than he gets.

In some ways, the first two Mole novels stand apart from the others, because they are a little lighter in tone, and focus on Adrian as a teenager. Subsequent volumes revisit Mole’s life as an adult: in The Wilderness Years (1993), he is twenty-four, and less endearing because some of the traits that could be explained away as teenage foibles – his pedantry, pomposity, and self-obsession – are harder to take in a grown man; when Adrian is dwelling on his lack of success and action with the opposite sex, for example, it’s not so easy to be sympathetic, as one can see quite clearly why his personality and behaviour may be unattractive (there is a woman who likes him, but naturally Mole doesn’t take her hints). Yet Townsend’s humour remains, and one is back on Adrian’s side by novel’s (rather uplifting) end.

In 2009’s The Prostrate Years, Adrian Mole is thirty-nine; living with his wife and young daughter, in a converted pigsty next door to his parents – though his marriage is under strain, and the future of the second-hand bookshop where Adrian works is uncertain. His key character traits are the same as ever, but there’s a bitter sting in that, now, Adrian is trying his best to ignore the signs of prostate cancer. He’s a sympathetic character once again, because of the sense that he is trying to hold on to himself and his life in the face of all that’s happening; the single word ‘treatment’ in many entries gains its force from how much is obviously being left unsaid by this character who has always been so open. The dramatic irony of Mole’s asides carries more bite here than in the earliest books (‘It is good to know that whatever travails we may suffer in life, Woolworths will always be there’), and it serves as a reminder that none of us knows what may be around the corner.

Why do the Adrian Mole books remain so fresh after all these years? Partly because they’re very funny, of course; but I also wonder if Sue Townsend didn’t tap into something fundamental – maybe there’s something of Mole in all of us. Leaving aside his pedantry, for me Adrian represents ultimately represents thwarted ambition: wanting to be or achieve more, but not knowing how to do so. And Adrian is all the more frustrated because there are people in his life who have done what they wanted; it’s surely no coincidence that the lifelong object of Mole’s infatuation – Oxford-educated MP Pandora – is the character who has achieved her ambitions more than any other.

I want to finish with a quotation from The Prostrate Years which, to me, sums up the character of Adrian Mole. His marriage has broken down, and he’s reflecting on the absence of his daughter, Gracie:

I miss the physical presence of that indomitable little girl, trying to make her mark on the world. The feeling of those small strong arms around my neck. I miss the made-up songs she used to sing in the bath, I miss the certainty of her world. She knows nothing of nuclear proliferation or the misery that comes from loving somebody too much.

The comment on nuclear proliferation illustrates Mole’s tendency to dwell on issues at less-than-appropriate times; it might puncture the mood of the rest, but does not destroy that mood, because Adrian means everything sincerely. Those last few words – ‘loving somebody too much’ – are Adrian Mole all over; they show that, beneath the pretension and everything else, there’s a real human heart. That’s why Mole is such a great and enduring character.

Sunday Salon: Book reviewer clichés

This post is about an Examiner.com article by Michelle Kerns on “reviewerspeak” which I came across yesterday through Twitter. It’s a pretty old article, but I’m still going to respond — and I don’t entirely agree with it.

Kerns lists twenty words and phrases which (she says) are overused by reviewers and have simply become stand-ins for any meaningful comment. It’s very easy to use those terms, no doubt — I know I’ve used at least seven in the past, and probably more — and I’ll agree that they can be stifling when deployed in the way they are in Kerns’ sample bad review. None of this, however, stopped me from using one of the terms from the list (“that said”) in the review I was writing at the time.

Why did I deliberately use this term which I’d just seen labelled a cliché? Because it helped me say what I wanted to say. My problem with Kerns’ list is that it treats all those words and expressions as clichés in and of themselves — well, “readable” and “page-turner” maybe, but I’d say that, for the rest, it depends on context. Sometimes a book is gripping; sometimes a scene is poignant — as you long as you make it clear why they are, what’s wrong with saying so?

As for “that said”, I think it’s a perfectly good way to link together two contrasting points, as long as you stand equally by both of them (e.g. in my last review, I wanted to say that I enjoyed the novel, even though I felt disadvantaged by not knowing the back-story). If, on the other hand, it’s used (per Kerns’ example) as a way of watering down a firm opinion, then yes, that’s a bad thing. As I say, it all depends on context.

Question: what do you think of that list? Do you think there are any words or phrases that are so tired, a reviewer just shouldn’t use them?

Sunday Salon: Unexpected Books

A question, inspired by my reading of Transition, for Sunday Salon menbers who pass by (and, indeed, anyone else!): what books have you read that turned out differently from how you expected?

Sunday Salon: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)

TSSbadge4The Picture of Dorian Gray falls squarely in the category of ‘books I know about and so don’t need to read; except that, when I do read them, it turns out I didn’t know them at all’. What prompted me to read it now? It was the choice for a new reading group I’ve joined, which met for the first time this afternoon; and it seems a good subject for a Sunday Salon post. (NB. This is more likely to be a series of scattered impressions than a proper ‘review’.)

If you had asked me to summarise the book a couple of weeks ago (i.e. before I’d started reading it), I’d have told you that Dorian Gray was a man who didn’t age, whilst the figure in the portrait of himself that he had hidden away aged instead. And I’d have been wrong. It’s true that Dorian doesn’t age; but the picture bears the marks of psychological ravages as well as physical ones — and it’s the former that prove more damaging.

We first encounter Dorian Gray at the home of his artist friend Basil Hallward, who’s been painting the titular portrait. Here, Dorian meets the vile Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonistic aesthete who values ‘beauty’ above all else, and disapproves of such values as loyalty and unselfishness. Dorian is at first wary of Henry’s worldview; but, when Sybil Vane, the young actress to whom he is engaged, kills herself (because of the harsh way in which Dorian dismisses her and the acting which is so close to her heart), Dorian sees the first change in his portrait — and this causes hm to throw himself into a life of decadence. The rest of Wilde’s novel chronicles Dorian’s decline, as he becomes ever more selfish, ruining the lives of others, even to the point of murder. He does start to have doubts and regrets in the end; but by then it may be too late for him.

I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a fascinating psychological portrait; what’s particularly interesting is the way that Dorian’s life and ‘self’ become distorted, even as his body stays the same; he might have escaped the ageing process, but Dorian can hardly be said to have remained immaculate, as he wished.

Related to that last point is the issue of morality. Wilde’s preface (I’m unsure whether or not it is meant to be taken at face value) includes a comment that ‘there is no such thing as an moral or immoral book’; but I do see the book as quite moral, because the Dorian’s selfishness and hedonism seem to me to be presented in an ultimately negative light. However, I don’t think a reading of the novel as a bad-things-happen-to-bad-people moral fable quite works; because, strictly speaking, Dorian gets his comeuppance for seeking to abandon his decadence (as symbolised by the portrait); and Lord Henry, who espoused in the first place the philosophy that led to Dorian’s (and others’) ruin, gets no comeuppance at all. So there is some moral ambiguity there; I think the issue is probably going to remain unresolved in my mind.

As a novel… I hestitate to judge a hundred-year-old book by my own modern standards of how a novel should be; but, for what it’s worth, I thought it well written but a little awkwardly constructed, with Wilde whizzing over a period of eighteen years between the most important events in Dorian’s life, and leaving the details of who some of the characters are rather sketchy.

Anyway, the most imprtant thing is that I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a good, thought-provoking read — deservedly a ‘classic’.

Sunday Salon: Evie Wyld, Zoe Green

I’ve just discovered the Sunday Salon and thought I’d join in. What I’m going to do is read and blog about some short stories online. I’ll link to each story so you can read it for yourself. For this first post, I’ve decided to tackle a couple of stories from Untitled Books.

‘Menzies Meat’ by Evie Wyld takes us to the tiny mining town of Menzies in Western Australia; and Elaine, the sixteen-year-old girl who works in her father’s butcher shop there. Elaine is frustrated at being stuck in a rut and longs to get out of Menzies; the story is essentially a portrait of how her frustration builds to a head, until… but that, of course, would be telling. At first, the narrative seems to be going all over the place, but the reason becomes clear in the end: everything — from the stifling atmosphere of the shop to the salt lake that looks the same whether it’s full or dry — is an expression or mirror of Elaine’s feeling of inertia. Wyld conjures that feeling vividly.

Zoe Green’s ‘The Wake’ is narrated by someone (who could be male or female; I’m not certain) who is dying of cancer, and currently planning their own funeral, as they watch Hester (who lives in the flat below) in the garden. The action moves, paragraph by paragraph, between the present moment, the narrator’s own life (as they ruminate especiallyon an ex-lover, Ferdi), and scenes from Hester’s past. There are some quite subtle moments of characterisation, as the narrator tries (not all that successfully) to live through Hester — so the title doesn’t just refer to the ceremony being planned; for the narrator, the telling of the story itself is a kind of wake. As with ‘Menzies Meat’, this tale grows richer the more you turn it over in your mind.

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