Non-Fiction, Reviews

Men Explain Things to Me and Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014)

IMG_0852Like most people, I am familiar with the term ‘mansplaining’. I’ve also heard a fair bit of excitement about Rebecca Solnit as an interesting writer. Her essay Men Explain Things to Me is the origin of the term, something I only learned seeing the word in circulation – when it first became a thing there were lots of little articles about it everywhere, and examples of when women had been mansplained to were shared across social media. It became something of a pop culture phenomenon. It’s even in the OED.

So, once I knew where the word came from, I was curious to know more. I’d heard of Rebecca Solnit a bit, so finding out more about her work certainly appealed. I’m always keen to read a bit more non-fiction, especially something like this that isn’t narrative (I read a lot of that). Plus, the Granta hardback of Men Explain Things to Me: And Other Essays is very attractive indeed, so I just had to go for it.

It’s funny to hear that something is great, and then actually experience it for yourself. There are expectations, whether they are rational or not. I expected the essay to be good, to be groundbreaking even, but I didn’t know anything about Solnit’s writing style or her narrative voice. Luckily I was pleased with both of these things – her writing is academic and formal enough to be taken seriously, and it is engaging and elegant enough to entertain and keep you turning the pages. With this essay she is writing about a cultural occurrence, but also about a personal experience. The first instance of explaining occurs at a party, with people she knows, and some she doesn’t, and it’s a wonderful example of a personal, female experience that can be translated into the wider context of our current culture and society. It must have been quite the epiphanic moment when Solnit decided to distill this experience and its relevance to women everywhere into this eloquent and succinct essay. It is a perfect translation of life into literature, and then into something bigger that permeates society.

Though the book is under 200 pages, there are six ‘Other Essays’ in this volume. They all centre around gender, feminism, equal rights, freedom. Personally I found Grandmother Spider to be the most compelling. It starts with an analysis of an untitled painting by the artist Ana Teresa Fernandez, in which a woman is obscured by the sheet which she is pegging to a washing line. The wind is blowing it against her, showing some of the shape of her body, but all we see are her hands at the top, trying to peg it down, and her feet below, jarring in their pointy high heeled shoes. This painting and others by Fernandez are printed at the start of each chapter to illustrate some point in the following essay. But this one struck me the most.

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Untitled (image: anateresafernandez.com)

In Grandmother Spider Solnit discusses how easy it is for women to be obscured, hidden from view, made to disappear. She uses the example of family trees, where maiden names are erased, and sometimes lineages only depict the males of the family, leaving out the mothers, wives, sisters, daughters. She also writes about the war in Argentina in the 1970s and 80s, where countless people were “disappeared”, and how the mothers of the disappeared were the ones who gathered in public to protest. She writes about the Ferite a Morte (Wounded to Death) project led by the Italian actress Serena Dandini, and how they count every woman killed by a man (about 60,000 annually, worldwide) and how this can be seen as “the ultimate form of erasure, silencing, disappearance” – because most of them are killed by “lovers, husbands, former partners”.

I particularly loved the closing paragraph of this essay, summing up Solnit’s reaction to these terrible facts, to this erasure of women throughout history:

To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not just straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sing and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.

If you have any interest in feminism and equality, no matter your gender, I would recommend this book. I shall certainly be reading more of Solnit’s work – in fact this afternoon I ordered a copy of her new book, The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms. I can’t wait to read it!

*

Published by Granta (UK) and Haymarket Books (US) in 2014. I read the Granta 2014 hardback edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

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Fiction, Reviews

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

As you can tell I am steaming ahead with the Lady Trent series! I finished book one, A Natural History of Dragons, and went straight into book two – The Tropic of Serpents. This one is set three years after book two, and Isabella is on another foreign expedition to study dragons.

This time she is accompanied by Tom Wilker (from the first book) and her young friend Natalie (granddaughter of Lord Hilford, her financier, whom we met in the first book, and who proves to be wonderful little feminist). They travel to a country called Eriga which seems to be quite African in climate and peoples. When they first arrive in Point Miriam they encounter a huge number of different peoples and races, something I really enjoyed reading about. It is impressive how many different peoples Brennan creates, giving each of them their own distinct characteristics – whether we observe them briefly or spend most of the story with them.

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2014 Titan Books edition

Eriga is currently at war and Isabella’s country, Scirland, is providing military support. So, Isabella and her team are allowed to visit and explore the region for their research, and of course look for dragons. They end up going into ‘the Green Hell’, a jungle which is actually called Mouleen. The people of Mouleen (the Moulish) are tribal and live in amongst the forest. They act as tour guides and hosts for the Scirlish team and we get lots of stories about struggling to cope with the heat and the minor scandal of cutting up dresses to make trousers. Isabella soldiers on and is admirable in her efforts to acclimatise and understand the Moulish people. This made me like her even more, along with the fact that she speaks about the impracticalities of getting your period while travelling. When they first arrive in Eriga they are invited to stay in the palace, and when a maid discovers that Isabella is menstruating she is sent to the ‘agban’ – the place where women must be sequestered while they menstruate; Isabella thinks this is ridiculous but goes along with it so as not to offend. It ends up being useful as she meets the king’s sister and manages to use that connection later. Anyway, I liked this down to earth attitude and the frankness with which all of this is discussed. It is to true to way women talk about periods and the direct effect they have on day-to-day life.

Something else I very much liked was Isabella’s discussion of her role as both a mother and an adventurer, something that is mentioned in Liz Bourke’s review of the book on Tor.com:

“…in Isabella’s case, society’s disapproval of her choice to leave her three-year-old son in the care of relatives in order to pursue her life’s work. Isabella evinces a complicated attitude towards motherhood, and rightly points out the double standard of a society that would have [her] abandon her own work in favour of devoting her life to her child, while it would expect nothing of the kind when it came to a [man in her position]. This is a topic rarely brought into perspective in the fantasy genre, and that makes me doubly glad to see Brennan treat it with nuance here.”

Isabella’s world is a parallel of our Victorian era, and so we can understand these struggles. As Liz Bourke points out it is also brilliant that all this is blended into the fantasy of the story; this is something that really appeals to me about the Lady Trent series. I’m not a devotee of the fantasy genre so I like these relatable aspects and the links to our world and history. The relations between different peoples are also quite familiar, with the white people coming over to explore, bringing their complicated clothing and imposing military fleet. There are lots of little details in all this that are both charming and engaging, and they create a very believable and immersive world.

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The helpful map at the start of the book

I must say that the political and social aspects of the story do sometimes overtake the purpose of their visit to Eriga and Mouleen – research into dragons. Isabella does get to study them and learn a few things, but for me there could have been more dragons in The Tropic of Serpents. I quite like the scientific side of the Lady Trent stories, and would happily have learned more about the anatomy and breeding habits of the swamp-wyrms they come across. And while the drawings in this volume are just as brilliant as those in A Natural History of Dragons, these did not have any captions and I think this was lacking. But otherwise, I loved every minute of this book. I have already ordered the next in the series, The Voyage of the Basilisk, and I’m sure that will be just as brilliant.

*

Published in 2014 by Titan Books. Available from Wordery and Foyles.

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Fiction, Reviews

Exploring genres with A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

I generally read ‘literary’ or historical fiction, and I’ve wanted to reach out into more genre fiction for a while. While browsing in Waterstones a few weeks ago I wandered with my boyfriend up to the sci fi/fantasy section, and came across the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan.  Lady Trent is a ‘dragon naturalist’ and the series is made up of several volumes of her memoirs, starting with A Natural History of Dragons. The series is set in an alternate Victorian universe where, in the first novel at least, a young Lady Trent battles against gender norms and social stereotypes. The book is essentially a Victorian adventure, with a bit of romance thrown in, plus some dragons – which it turns out works for me.

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2014 Titan Books edition

Lady Trent, still just Isabella in the first novel, wants to learn about dragons but this isn’t considered ‘suitable’ for young ladies; she tries to suppress her passion but reads about dragons in secret and is eventually encouraged by her father. She fulfils her duty of finding a husband, Jacob Camherst, who luckily shares her passion. The bulk of the story follows them on an expedition to Vystrana with some colleagues to study dragons. They get embroiled in a mystery, local politics, smuggling, and local religion, and while some of the story is a little over the top, it is an enjoyable romp with some great characters. Isabella is an entertaining narrator, though her wisdom-through-hindsight sometimes overshadows the excitement of the events in the story. However I still loved it and got wrapped up in the study of dragons and the mystery of their out-of-character attacks on humans. Isabella has a genuine passion for their work, and I admired her defiance of conventions and determination to be useful and get involved in the adventure. The story is a lot of fun and is very engaging – I read quickly, desperate to know what would happen next. Happily I wasn’t able to guess the ending, which is always a good thing,

In fact I enjoyed A Natural History of Dragons so much that today I went to Waterstones and bought the next book in the series, The Tropic of Serpents. Hopefully it will be just as good! I’m glad I branched out with this book, and think I may read more fantasy like this in the future. This is partly because I feel like reading something a bit different, and also because the two books I read before this were both about life during World War Two, both of which were brilliant but not exactly cheery. I’ve enjoyed the escapism of Lady Trent and look forward to more Victorian dragon romps.

*

Published in 2014 by Titan Books.

Available from Wordery and Foyles.

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

A Trip Down Memory Lane with Anjelica Huston

As a rule I rather like reading memoirs, though I must say I am picky about whose I read. I’ve read mostly literary memoirs or those about an ordinary person who had an extraordinary experience (such as Wild or The Rules of Inheritance). I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir of a celebrity before. The phrase ‘celebrity memoir’ creates visions of cheesy covers with swily writing, with taglines promising to dish the dirt and ‘tell all’. I would never read those. But I did decide the two-volume memoir of Anjelica Huston. Partly because she isn’t some fame-hungry idiot, and also because I like her films and find her interesitng as a person; and I knew a little about her life already, so I knew it would be a good story.

The memoir is split into two parts: A Story Lately Told covers her life up to about the age of twenty, and Watch Me goes from then to now. They both have beautiful covers too, which make them look like memoirs, but not like trashy memoirs. I think they are very well measured and very effective.

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

I read A Story Lately Told while on holiday with friends in Devon, and it was the perfect way to escape while it rained and we were stuck indoors. Anjelica spent most of her childhood in Ireland, running around the family’s large house and grounds, and hearing exciting stories from her father’s overseas adventures in his career as a film director. Her father was John Huston, known for directing Hollywood classics such as ‘The African Queen’ and ‘The Misfits’ – and also as a bit of a womaniser and someone who did things his own way. As a result Anjelica’s childhood was often punctuated with glimpses of the drama which surrounded her father, both in his professional life and personal life. He was a ‘big personality’ and their relationship, though not always harmonious, is never boring. Anjelica’s father also led her to her career as a model and actor. Anyway. The first book is a dreamy account of an idyllic childhood in Ireland, followed by teenage adventures in London with her mother, after her parents’ divorce; then a few years in New York, and finally the beginning of Anjelica’s life in Los Angeles. It is a whirlwind of anecdotes and endless names and places, but as in both books, Anjelica Huston has a steady and calm way of narrating her story that avoids becoming too complicated or muddled, even when there is a lot going on. I found her emotionally intelligent and perceptive, with a knack for self-analysis (and analysis of others) in hindsight.

This ‘knack’ also comes in very handy in the second volume, Watch Me, which chronicles her adult life. At the end of A Story Lately Told, she has just extricated herself from an emotionally turbulent relationship with the photographer Bob Richardson (father of Terry Richardson), and Watch Me begins with the aftermath of this. This relationship is brilliantly examined and explored, and Huston adds a great sense of humanity and feeling to something that happened so long ago. Likewise her account of her relationships with Jack Nicholson and Ryan O’Neal, both of whom were challenging and brilliant in their own ways. It is fascinating to hear particularly about her relationship with Jack Nicholson, and she handles the ups and downs with dignity and sensitivity. She speaks quite personally about Nicholson, but you get the impression she is still respecting his privacy, as she protects her own, and I liked this very much. She is able to tell stories without resorting to ‘telling all’. It could so easily have descended into sensationalism, but Anjelica Huston keeps it classy, as always.

While Anjelica Huston’s story is filled with famous people, places, and events, she does not brag, or gossip, or sensationalise. She tells her story just as she experienced it, with its good times and bad times, just like anyone else’s life. Hers just happened to be quite exceptional. I liked her very much as I read, and very much enjoyed the style and tone of the books, which is relaxed and anecdotal, but not so chatty that there isn’t a clear storyline and structure. The books also aren’t that long, so they are not too demanding.

If you have the interest, and you like memoirs of interesting women, I would really recommend these two volumes. It is a life filled with excitement and adventure (and some excellent old movie recommendations) but also with the comforting mundanity of ordinariness. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but it is a celebration of life and the fact that it doesn’t matter if things aren’t perfect and you aren’t perfect – life can still be wonderful. That alone makes these two books worth reading.

*

Both volumes published in the UK by Simon & Schuster, and in the US by Scribner, in 2014 and 2015.

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BookTube, Non-Fiction, Reviews

BookTube: The Last Asylum by Barbara Taylor (first booktube review!)

Hi all, as I’m sure you know BookTube is a really big ‘thing’, and I follow a fair amount of booktubers, so I decided to give it a go! So here I go…

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson

Well. This is a review I have been avoiding for a while. I finished reading The Mighty Dead about two weeks ago. I’d made some notes, but it is hard to put them together and get to the point of what I really think about this book.

2015 William Collins paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

2015 William Collins paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

The fact is I feel quite strongly about it. It is, simply, a book I had been waiting for. One I dreamed would exist in some form. I don’t think I realised just how much I wanted this book to appear until it did. And yet I didn’t pounce on it when the hardback was first released – partly because of the expense and heft of the book, but also because I was nervous about reading it. What if it wasn’t all I hoped it would be? What if I didn’t like the writing or the author’s opinions? There are always reasons not to do things.

In the end it was, inevitably, a blog post that convinced me The Mighty Dead would be ‘safe’ to read, and that I should just go for it. The fantastic Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses wrote a brilliant post that I could not ignore. She was my fellow reader and sent away all my worries. I had to read this book! So thank you Carolyn.

Adam Nicolson has great passion for Homer, and he is a wonderful guide to the works themselves, as well as the concepts and ideas within them, and the cultural and historical context and influence of both The Iliad and The Odyssey. His writing is academic yet accessible, conversational but not too chatty, and he includes scenes from his own life that add context and reality to elements of Homer, relating them to real life in the most beautiful and effective ways. He is a wonderful writer.

The chapter divisions are very effective. Nicolson takes us on a journey of how one come to love and understand Homer, but also through the different sides of Homer – the poems themselves, their time and place, a bit of text analysis, as well as the context and influence of the poems. There is a spattering of European history throughout the book as Nicolson relates Homer to a world we know, or at least know of. All this is utterly fascinating, and I feel that I really learned something new and can now appreciate Homer in a new way, as something that is an integral part of Euro-Asian (well the western part of Asia) history. That is something very special.

You probably do need to have at least some knowledge of Homer in order to read The Mighty Dead; but I do think that it could also serve as a very thorough introduction for someone who has perhaps heard about The Iliad and The Odyssey, and wants to know more before reading them. It is certainly a good idea to know something about the poems before you read them, even if only basic context. I think the more you understand the poems, the more you appreciate them.

They are simply wonderful. I first read The Odyssey at school, where I studied it at both GCSE and A Level. Going through it twice – both times with the same dedicated and inspiring teacher – meant that I am immensely fond of it. I haven’t read it all the way through in a while, but I remembered almost all of the scenes Nicolson references in The Mighty Dead, and my prior knowledge meant that I could revel in the analysis and exploration of its characters and themes. For me, almost all of life is covered by and contained within The Odyssey. It taught me a lot about storytelling, leadership, love and family, the passage of time, dealing with the past – and looking to the future. It is undeniably Ancient Greek and of its time, but it is also universal. In my opinion everyone should read it.

I have never studied The Iliad, but have read it on my own, which made me appreciate about much it helps to be guided through Homer. Reading it ‘alone’ can  sometimes be overwhelming – so a book like The Mighty Dead really is a godsend. The Iliad is different from The Odyssey in many ways, but it still encompasses most of life. Simone Weil called it a ‘poem of force‘, which makes sense – it is intense, visceral, full of power, desire, physicality, love, life, and death. This is why the two poems, and Homer, have survived history and are still with us – they speak to us of things we never knew, but also of things we’ve known all along in some way, in our hearts, even if we didn’t really know that we knew them.

It is difficult to explain this – the point is that I urge you to read Homer if you haven’t already and to re-read if you have, as I plan to; and to read The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson. It is just brilliant.

*

Published in 2014 by Henry Holt in the US and William Collins in the UK.

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Fiction, Reviews

Hideous Creatures by S. E. Lister

Well this was an odd one. Purchased on a whim (something I do quite rarely these days) and never before heard about, I decided to take a chance with Hideous Creatures. And boy was it taking a chance. The premise is relatively simple: ‘youngest son of an illustrious line’ Arthur Hallingham flees from scandal in England and makes his way to the New World on a slave ship from Africa. Once there, he sets out to discover a new life and forget his old one… all very intriguing and interesting so far.

2015 paperback edition

2015 paperback edition

The section on the slave ship is particularly grim and fascinating at the same time, and the engaging nature of Lister’s writing really comes through – there is plenty of mystery about Arthur and his past, and the reader ploughs on, eager to discover more. In regard to Arthur’s secrets, this style continues throughout the book. Right until the dramatic reveal you are trying to guess what he is running from and what makes him so ashamed of himself, and I both enjoyed and admired the suspense and intrigue. Once Arthur reaches the New World, he soon teams up with an even more mysterious man, Shelo, who is covered in spiralling tattoos and may or may not be a witchdoctor, a magical being, a native, or something else entirely. He is consistently described like some kind of wild beast, huge and imposing, with eyes that seem to make everyone scared and nervous. He tells Arthur he ‘called’ him from across the sea and needs him to accompany him on his strange journey to fulfil a strange purpose… and Arthur goes along with it. He has literally nothing to lose.

And so there is lots of travelling, random and unnecessary interactions with outlaws that go on too long, and the mysterious horror of what Shelo does in the back of the wagon with the desperate people who come to him for help. Arthur hears them screaming, and sees them leave with wide, blank eyes. They wander off into the night like zombies.

This is where it starts to get a bit odd. Arthur’s personal story is actually rather good and very interesting, and the secrets of his life are eked out in flashbacks and memories in a very satisfying way. It’s just the magical-realism hoohah with Shelo that I’m still not sure of. More information about him comes out over time, but even then it doesn’t all gel together. It sort of makes sense, but it gets a bit overblown and makes you take a step back and realise that it doesn’t quite sit well alongside Arthur’s story of aristocratic scandal and personal demons.

However I did love the descriptions and the vivid images of the landscape, the weather, the atmosphere, and the mood of these outcasts travelling around the New World without a home. Arthur and Shelo are eventually joined by Flora, the daughter of a famous outlaw, and she serves as a reality check for them both and stops the whole things from sinking into overblown melodrama. I didn’t think she had enough to do, but I liked her earthiness contrasted with Shelo’s mysteriousness and Arthur’s despair.

My ‘verdict’ for Hideous Creatures would be that it is basically a good book, but that it needed to be reined in and sculpted a lot more by both the author and the editor. It runs a bit too wild and gets caught up in its own fantasy, and the sharpness is lost. It was still enjoyable, and I read it quickly, but there was a bit too much faffing and wriggling. I will however keep an eye out for what S. E. Lister does next – I reckon it will be intriguing if nothing else.

*

Published by Old St Publishing in 2014.

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Events, Fiction, Reviews

Fancy A Little Gothic With Your Christmas?

‘Tis the season for all things Christmas, but I for one am still thinking about Halloween and all things Gothic… partly because I love Halloween, but also because I recently did two things that have made the Gothic stick in my mind: attending the Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition at The British Library, and reading the new collection of Horror Stories from Oxford University Press.

First, to the Library. Now that I live in Oxford I don’t get the opportunity to go to exhibitions in London as often as I would like, so I jumped at the chance to visit this one as part of our day out for my boyfriend’s birthday recently (we also had dinner at Gaucho Sloane – very trendy and a bit ‘clubby’, but the best steak we’ve ever eaten).

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Having studied a few Gothic novels at university, including And Radcliffe’s The Italian, I knew a little of what to expect, but the exhibition provided so much more to think about than just the early Gothic novels. From Mrs Radcliffe it takes you through the Romantic poets (both generations), Frankenstein (there’s quite a lot about the fateful night at the Villa Diadoti where the idea for Frankenstein was conceived), through Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker, and right up to twentieth century Gothic writers like Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft.

There were some beautiful and very cool ‘originals’ like an early copy of Frankenstein, a script for the film Hellraiser, a first edition of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, and letters between some of the writers I’ve mentioned. Towards the end the exhibition became more and more about film, with a focus on Hammer Horror, as well as later movies like Hellraiser as mentioned, and The Shining (for which there was also an original script with notes by Stanley Kubrick). In short it was a Gothic and horror fan’s dream. We absolutely loved it and I would highly recommend it, even if Gothic and horror aren’t really your thing (and a trip to the BL is always nice isn’t it?). The gift shop for the exhibition was also amazing!

 

In October, just in time for Halloween, Oxford University Press released a beautiful new collection of Gothic stories, simply titled Horror Stories. It has a fantastic cover, featuring a gargoyle of Thomas Becket, and it is a truly beautiful book:

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It is a beautifully finished book that you just want to take care of. It has a classic ribbon as a page marker, meaning no folded over pages or crappy old bus tickets as bookmarks. It has also pleasingly thin pages that flop over in a very satisfying way. It is ‘so Oxford’ and a book they should be proud of.

The content is as good as the production. There are stories from some of the best and most famous horror writers, including Bram Stoker, Edgar Allen Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood. But there are also writers here that I wouldn’t necessarily associate with horror, but who actually fit in rather well, namely Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling. It’s also worth noting that the stories by the more famous writers were none that I had ever heard of or read, so that added some intrigue and excitement.

This volume is also my first opportunity to read The Yellow Wall Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which is not only psychological and rather chilling, but also a groundbreaking piece of feminist literature. I’ve read it once and am sure I will have to read it again to be able fully grasp the depth of it. The narrator’s tone is so cheery throughout you could mistake it for contentedness, but as you read on, and reread certain sentences, it becomes clear she is anything but content. The ending really gripped me and I read the last couple of paragraphs more than once. There is something quite unnerving about it.

But then, unnerving is something that the Gothic does so well. It creeps us out, amazes us, draws us in, and scandalises us with its horror and glory. I have just finished reading The Raven’s Head (2015) by Karen Maitland, which was dripping with the Gothic, and it certainly did all of those things – as did all the stories in this brilliant new volume from OUP. I really recommend it as a Christmas present (as it’s so beautiful as well as brilliant) for the Gothic fan in your life – even if that’s you! It’s also a perfect example of the power of short stories, and their ability to enrapture you with deceptively simple means. I personally feel that Modernism (such as the stories of Katherine Mansfield) and Gothic are two of the best genres for short stories, and I intend to read more of both in 2015.

I’m sure there are lots of you who love short stories – why do you think they work so well? And will you be reading this new volume of Horror Stories? Or attending Terror and Wonder? It’s so good!

*

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination is on at The British Library until 20th January 2015. You can book tickets here.

Horror Stories was published in October 2014 by Oxford University Press. My thanks for the publisher for the review copy.

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Articles, Comment

In Praise Of: Sad Stories

When we learn about trauma, we also learn about catharsis, about ‘getting it out’ and finding closure. About having a cathartic experience. This is why we read books about war and suffering, why survivor testimonies are always popular books in whatever form they may take – from the wonder of writers like Primo Levi, to the tawdriness of abuse memoirs. We read sad stories out of curiosity, out of a desire to know how bad things can be in order to appreciate the true goodness of our own lives. We need to remember that it can always be worse, that there are and were a lot of people a lot worse off than us. But, we must not be negative, we must not focus on sad things to the point that they bring us down and we see sadness in everything.

I chose to praise sad books in this post partly because I have realised that a lot of the books I read have sad stories. One in particular that I read very recently was a memoir by journalist Emma Brockes in which she investigates her mother’s dramatic life after her death. She Left Me the Gun has been described as a misery memoir, unfortunately, but that was not what it was for me. For one thing I started reading it without any knowledge of the darkness it held, and I was not in any way intrigued or scandalised by the disturbing nature of the revelations.

(Faber 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

It is a very intelligently written book, a woman taking the time to examine her mother’s life and the history of that part of her family, and to lay it all out before her like a jigsaw – to piece it together and see a whole. But Emma Brockes does not dwell on negativity or unpleasant memories. She recounts everything as unfortunate matter-of-fact, as ‘this is what happened’ and little else. She of course examines its ramifications and the ways in which the suffering of the past has filtered into the present, but again it is not depressing or sensationalist. The fact that she is a journalist, and that it is her own family, means that she is very respectful and never veers towards vulgarity or luridness. She takes everything as it appears to her and rationally recounts it to her readers in a way that is not heavy-handed or grim.

Though I didn’t enjoy learning of her family’s pain I did enjoy She Left Me the Gun for the fact that Emma Brockes’ mother had an incredible life, and she tells it wonderfully. I learned about South Africa, and the difficulties of coming to England, and I read charming and funny anecdotes about family life, and I liked Emma Brockes and her mother very much. All life has sadness in it, and to deny it is to be unrealistic. So there is nothing wrong with reading sad stories, and they can be read out of something other than morbid curiosity – but most importantly, for me, ‘sad stories’ contain so much more than sadness. Often they serve to highlight the areas of life without sadness, the happiness and light that we so need. We must experience the sadness in order to be able to say, as at the end of She Left Me the Gun, ‘enough now.’

*

She Left Me the Gun was published by Faber & Faber (UK paperback) in February 2014.

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Fiction, Reviews

#thisbeautiful : Growing Up in the 1970s

Tinder Press 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com

Tinder Press 2014 cover. Image: goodreads.com

There was buzz around this novel a long time before publication. I started seeing the #thisbeautiful hashtag on Twitter in I think May, a full five months before the publication date. Promotion seems to be starting earlier and earlier for books these days! As long as we keep it up and don’t forget the books by the time they are published…

I am writing the first part (at least) of this review in June, shortly after having read #thisbeautiful. I thought it best to get my thoughts down when the book is still fresh in my mind.

First let’s talk about that title. If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go. Aside from the fact that I keep thinking ‘never’ and ‘would’ should be the other way around, to me it sounds more like the title of a poem than a novel. Or at least a prose poem (does anyone write those anymore?). It is a phrase that the author has clearly pored over and crafted to make it just right – otherwise it wouldn’t be so important to include all of it in the title. At first I just thought it was way too long, but after having read the book I see that it is necessary in its own way. While this is not a long novel it is one that is complex and rambling, filled up with stories and images. It is the story of a group of friends over one summer in the 1970s, and the story of so many other young people living with the presence and aftermath of war.

Katie narrates our story for us. She lives on Long Island, at Elephant Beach. ‘The Beach’ is a place but it is also like another character. It influences everyone that comes to live in it, and while it captures some it drives others away. Katie lives there with her adopted mother, and she feels a great sense of security in the familiarity of life at the beach, of seeing the same people in the same places everyday and always having something to do and people to see. She and most of her friends are in their late teens and are just leaving school. They are simultaneously independent and heavily reliant on their parents, and exist in a strange limbo between childhood and adulthood. Katie recounts memories of growing up with the people around her, and their lives as small children do not seem very far away – but already they are dealing and taking drugs, having sex in cars and falling asleep, barefoot and drunk, on the beach. They are bored and adventurous in the way that most teenagers are, but they are also overshadowed by the war in Vietnam. They all know someone who has been to fight, whether or not they returned. They all know that the war is complicated and morally unstable, and they all yearn for love and stability – though I doubt they would really characterise it that way.

Katie and her friends are essentially hippies – they reminded me a lot of the ‘disaffected’ young people that Joan Didion writes about in her essay ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ (included in the collection of the same name). They live in San Francisco in the 1960s, and though they exist in a very different environment there are stark similarities. Drugs and sex abound, as well as a lack of parental authority and the attitude that everything will be alright if you just ‘go with the flow’. They live in a supposedly amazing and almost idyllic place that should give them a wonderful life, but the reality of that life is almost nothing like the ideal – that applies to both Didion’s subjects as well as Katie and her friends. She tells us about several of them in little ‘vignettes’, a chapter dedicated to each incredible story.

As well as disillusionment and apathy, these young people also have to deal with unplanned pregnancies. There are several of these in the book and Katie relates the tales of three of her female friends, one who has the baby and struggles to cope and eventually moves away from the beach with her boyfriend; one who has her baby adopted and then joins a communal Christian household; and one who has a secret abortion, at which Katie is present. I felt these girls’ desperation and sadness, as well as their guilt at doing things ‘wrong’ and not being ‘good’. It is easy to forget that at this point the pill was not available to everyone, and abortions were illicit (though legal in the state of New York). These girls are not guided by their mothers, sisters, or (it seems) sex education at school, and have to muddle through on their own. There is a relaxed attitude to sex (though Katie and some of her younger friends are still yet to experience it), but no one is prepared for the consequences. To me this demonstrated the importance of not leaving young people like these to entirely fend for themselves – they have no support or help from anyone except each other, and they are all clueless.

This Beautiful is not particularly plot-driven. It is more a portrait of a time, and a group of people, and a place. Katie serves as a good narrator as not much seems to happen to her in comparison to her friends, and she is a good observer of the drama around her. Yet she is still just as lost and naive as the rest of them, and often wonders about the mother who gave her away – particularly when faced with her friends’ impending parenthood. Was her mother also some lost young girl, afraid of the future and growing up? Was she also without guidance and support, left to deal with things on her own? While Katie and her friends are a product of their era, perhaps the youth of every generation cannot escape the confusion of growing up.

Published in October 2014 by Tinder Press (UK). My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

You can read more about Judy Chicurel here.

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